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Coast Chronicles: Wuckkkkk! The tale of the Woodpecker Tree

By Kat Bergeron

KAT BERGERON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDA female pileated woodpecker, her red crest plastered to her head by the snow, isn't phased by the bad weather as she creates a new hole in search of bugs and carpenter ants to eat. Smaller birds often nest in woodpecker holes.
KAT BERGERON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDA female pileated woodpecker, her red crest plastered to her head by the snow, isn't phased by the bad weather as she creates a new hole in search of bugs and carpenter ants to eat. Smaller birds often nest in woodpecker holes.

This is a plea for the woodpecker tree.

Blame it on my Mom.

Every evening this spring as the other birds forage my woods for final noshes of food, Mr. P lets me know he's on his tree. This pileated woodpecker's call is a high, quick, resonating Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! that can be heard a mile away.

His jack-hammer symphony comes to an end as Mr. P and other feathered creatures from Goldfinches to buzzards settle in each night in the surrounding woods.

Unthinkably, I was going to chop down Mr. P's dead tree. It's a tall raggedy skeleton of its former self, probably a Virginia white oak so different from our short and broad Live oaks on the Mississippi Coast.

Since this tiny slice of woodsy hill became my paradise away from the Gulf Coast, a mixture of storms, drought and invasions of tree-devouring bugs have turned too many trees into potential firewood. As I needed to replenish fireplace fuel, I hacked at the reachable ones.

This winter I realized there are just too many downed trees, even for my natural appearance sensibilities, and I talked to a neighbor who has a lawn and tree business. I couldn't afford to clean out every bit of dead wood, nor would I want too, but it was past time to tackle the dead ones on the top of the hill, nearer the house. Most were already on the ground.

For two days several weeks ago, a chain-saw cacophony reminded me of our post-Katrina and post-Camille days, a brain-wrenching sound I associate with hurricane destruction even when in Virginia. Now, numerous but neat stacks of wood are seasoning and await being split in winters to come.

'Woodsman, spare that tree!'

We saved the biggest dead oak until last. I convinced myself it needed to come down, because the tall tree will likely do a number on my driveway when it crashes on its own. Several years ago one of the dead limbs broke off in a wind storm and wedged into the V of a neighboring live tree, creating an unusual support brace. This may be why it still stands tall.

My neighbor tried ropes to undo the limb brace, but no luck. The day was ending, he called it quits but said he'd be back the next weekend with a tree-climbing expert.

Fate intervened. Mr. P appeared.

That evening, as the sun was setting, I surveyed the neat stacks of future fire wood and a leafy forest carpet that had less tree litter. The quiet was interrupted with a Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Mr. P was back on his tree, the first time I'd seen or heard him in months. That particular sound, research tells me, is his staking claim on territory or calling a mate.

Is it the same woodpecker that returns every year to that tree? I suspect so. Pileated woodpeckers, whose favorite food is carpenter ants and wood beetle larvae, are monogamous and claim large territories. I'd likely lose a lot more trees if not for a proliferation of assorted woodpeckers who keep the tree-destroying beetle population down.

In Virginia, as on the Coast, those woodpeckers include the pileated, the red-head, the red-bellied, the downy and hairy woodpeckers and their cousins the flickers and sapsuckers. They entertain me year-round in Virginia, but I rarely see woodpeckers when I'm on the Coast because woods are scarcer.

The Pileated is among the largest and shyest woodpeckers, and the bird on which the popular cartoon character, Woody the Woodpecker, is based. Their common name, from the Latin pileatus, means "wearing a cap," and that's what their red crests look like. The males also have a bit of a red mustache.

A re-think is in store

Oh no, I was going to chop down Mr. P's tree. Because he's again getting loud in both his drumming and calls, I suspect he and other birds will be doing the "birds and bees" thing earlier this year because of an unusually warm winter. His noisy appearance on the tree was in time to bring me to my senses.

The dead oak will remain. Next winter, when there's no chance of killing a woodpecker brood, I'll re-assess the tree's standing strength. But for the rest of this year, Mr. P can have his tree.

I'm never quick to cut down dead trees unless there is an obvious endangerment, and I hope you do the same if the opportunity arises for your very own Woodpecker Tree.

I learned about this peculiar tree "species" from my nature-loving mother. No matter where we lived, Mom proudly maintained a Woodpecker Tree, usually a topped dead oak or pine that attracts these odd birds with remarkable chisel bills and long tongues for seeking out insects. Eventually the tree will topple, the decay becomes nourishment for new plant growth and the cycle of life continues.

The jury is still out on the longevity of Mr. P's standing tree, but what do I hear as I write this final sentence? That high-pitched, rapid Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk! Wuckkkkk!

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.