“Murder” in the Forest

By , June 12, 2011

A while back, Aly discovered a three-toed woodpecker nest on the trail, a ways above our trail head on Mud Bay. In a round hole 15 feet up in a small hemlock tree, a woodpecker had made a nest. As we passed it on our way to and from the bay, we would often find a bird sitting in the nest, its head sticking out of the entryway, stock still. Its feathers camouflaged it perfectly against the tree.

We began to check on the nest every trip. Before long, we could hear a quiet purring sound coming from the tree. We noticed another woodpecker often perched nearby. Before long, we began seeing them trade places. Each time one left and the other entered, the purring would grow louder, beoming a soft twitter.

We knew that their eggs had hatched, and the noise came from hungry chicks. From experience in the forest from past years, we knew that as the fledglings grew, this noise would become an incredible racket, filling the forest like an activated car alarm.

“Visiting” the nest became somewhat of a ritual, something to look forward to as we hiked the trail. We showed it to our neighbor’s little daughter. Aly wondered if the fledglings might grow up and leave before she returned from her field school in Canada.

The answer appears to be, “No.”

Dead Woodpecker

Sleeping in the forest. A three toed woodpecker, dead of unknown causes (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

Recently, when Michelle and I passed the tree, we stopped to listen, and heard nothing. No bird peeked out of the nest hole. Then Michelle found the body.

A male woodpecker lay dead on the moss near the base of the tree. We’re no forensic specialists, but one wing may have been broken. It seemed wounded under one wing, but not mortally—its skin had been eaten or pulled away, but that could well have happened after it died.

From all appearances, the female and the brood are gone. So what happened?

We know that squirrels raid nests to eat young birds. Certainly our forest is full of small predators, many of which can climb trees. We’ve even read of other birds, even other woodpeckers usurping nests.

But how did the male die? Why did the body lay, largely undisturbed, on the forest floor for so long (at least three hours, possibly days as far as we know)? What happened to the rest of the birds?

dead woodpecker's injuries

The injuries don’t seem to be fatal (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

We’ll never know. It remains a mystery, and for us, a sad one. As we well know, Nature is “red of tooth and claw,” and this is but one example. But for us, the walk to town will be a little less fun, though certainly no less interesting.

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