Updated – Emerald Ash Borers and Blonding: A Large Body of Bark Scaling Evidence Tends to Rule Out Pileated Woodpecker as The Source of Scaling on HickoriesPosted: July 11, 2018
A couple of initial housekeeping notes: I still plan to do a second, more conceptual post on ivorybill evidence, one on historic range, and possibly another on non-IBWO trail cam imagery. Look for those over the course of the summer. I thought this subject should take precedence and have changed plans accordingly. The photographs (other than my own), which I’m including in the largest possible sizes, are courtesy of bugwood.org (under a Creative Commons License) and Patowmack the trickster.
Thanks to John Kearvell for inspiring me to pursue this subject.
The emerald ash borer or EAB (Agrilus planipennis) is an invasive Buprestid beetle. The first known North American outbreak was near Detroit, Michigan in 2002. Since that time, the species has spread to 33 states and three Canadian provinces.
Bark scaling, especially by Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), is one reliable indicator of EAB infestation, and Pileated Woodpecker populations appear to increase as a result of outbreaks. Thus, there is now a large body of data on bark scaling that was not previously available for comparison with suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) work.
All of the numerous examples of white or green ash (Fraxinus americana or pennsylvanica) scaling by Pileated Woodpeckers (and presumably smaller woodpecker species as well) found online show “blonding” or removal of bark in layers. This may be due to anatomical limitations that preclude Pileated Woodpeckers from removing thick, tight bark in large pieces. Suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories – which have harder, tougher, tighter bark than ash – shows no trace of blonding or gradual removal. I think this excludes Pileated Woodpecker as the source of the hickory scaling.
Introduction: The Emerald Ash Borer
EABs are believed to have arrived in North America in packing materials. The first outbreak began near Detroit in 2002, and the species has spread rapidly since then, decimating native ashes wherever it goes. All indications are that this invasive insect will have an impact akin to that of Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, concerted quarantine efforts notwithstanding. Because EABs were a recent arrival and had not been well-studied during the first decade of the 2000s, their relevance to the issue of bark scaling does not appear to have been recognized by the formal searches that were conducted during that period.
While the invasion’s impact has already been devastating, EAB larvae are attractive to woodpeckers, especially Pileated Woodpeckers (Koenig and Liebhold, 2017), and bark scaling is one of the most obvious symptoms of infestation. (This attractiveness may have future implications for any surviving ivorybills as the EAB expands its range.)
Unlike many bole dwelling Cerambycidae, such as Hesperandra polita, which spend the bulk of their lifecycle in the heartwood and do minimal damage to the cambium, EAB larvae live, feed, and pupate just beneath the bark, eventually destroying the cambium. This causes the bark to fracture and sometimes to slough off by itself. In the very dramatic example shown below, I suspect that woodpeckers were involved in most, if not all, of the bark removal but only reached the sapwood well after the bark had started to loosen, fracture, and perhaps fall off on its own. Nevertheless, there are still signs of layered removal on the edges of the scaled/sloughed area.
When I started researching this subject, I was unaware that the term blonding had been applied to woodpecker work in pursuit of EABs, but it has become a widely-used (and apt) descriptive. It refers to the appearance of ash trees or parts thereof, after woodpeckers have started removing the outer bark in pursuit of EAB larvae and pupae. The process of reaching the sapwood appears to be a slow one, and after examining hundreds of images showing of bark scaling on ash trees, I have been unable to find a single example that was devoid of blonding, even when very extensive work was involved.
Patowmack the Trickster’s photo is the most extensive example of apparent Pileated Woodpecker scaling on an EAB infested tree that I’ve been able to find. The tree appears to be fairly long dead – based on the extent of the superficial excavation (tunnels are no longer distinct), the apparent fracture in the trunk at the center of the frame, and on the apparent separation of the bark from the sapwood that’s most distinct on the lower right edge of the scaled surface. While the extent of this work is impressive, I’d suspect PIWO even in potential ivorybill habitat – based on the appearance of the surface, the state of decay and seeming looseness of the bark, and the blonding, which is most evident at the top and at the lower left.
While smaller woodpeckers are responsible for some ash blonding, Pileated Woodpeckers are likely the primary source, especially when the work is as extensive as in the examples shown above. Images of Pileated Woodpeckers on blonded surfaces are considerably easier to find than ones involving other species. This brief video catches a PIWO in the act, on an extensively blonded tree, and points to the difficulty PIWOs face when scaling tight, thick bark.
Blonding on Other Tree Species
I have found blonding or its equivalent on a number of other tree species, so it is not exclusively related to any characteristics of ash bark. Rather, I think it is a function of Pileated Woodpecker anatomy. I have seen this on limbs, including sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) limbs, in our search area and have described it as a “layered” appearance.
It may be possible for Pileated Woodpeckers to remove tight bark from small to medium branches without leaving traces of blonding, especially if the bark is weakened or it comes from a species (like sweet gum) that is relatively soft and thin. Removing thick bark from mature boles is something else again, and I suspect that even when bark has loosened considerably, traces of blonding will often be visible when the work is done by Pileated Woodpeckers.
I have found one extreme example of suspected, extensive PIWO blonding on a bole in Louisiana. I think the tree involved is a sweet gum, but if it is an ash, it would be from a location well outside the range of the EAB today, let alone in 2011 when the tree was found. While blonding is easily visible on the trunk, it can also be recognized by examining bark chips.
I have seen the equivalent of blonding on loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) in the southeast and on softwoods in Westchester County, New York. The bark of most conifers is weaker and less tightly adhering than that of most hardwoods, and it typically becomes easy to scale far more rapidly. This is why I long since abandoned the idea that softwood scaling might be suggestive of ivorybill, unless it involves extensive work on multiple large trees.
I have also found it on live and dead hardwoods in Westchester County, NY. The first pair of images below, which I’ve posted previously, shows fresh, known Pileated Woodpecker work on a Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in my yard. (I saw the bird.) The second pair is from a local park. The snag, which I believe is a large sassafras (Sassafras albidum), appeared to be fairly long dead.
Ash Bark v. Hickory Bark
Ash bark resembles that of bitternut and pignut hickories (Carya cordifromis and Carya glabra), so much so that an arborist mistook the pignut that grows outside my office window for an ash and advised me to monitor it for EABs. Testing bark hardness with a fingernail is one way to avoid confusion. Ash bark feels corky, whereas hickory bark is extremely hard. Last year, I wrote an in-depth post on the characteristics of hickory bark and the reasons it is exceptionally difficult to remove. I won’t recapitulate it here, except to say that hickory bark is considerably harder and stronger than that of virtually any other genus. It is also tighter when trees are dormant or dead, as these reposted tables suggest.
The values shown are for shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), which is slightly stronger, tougher and tighter than bitternut or pignut. While white and green ash bark is considerably stronger and tougher than sweet gum and white ash bark is harder to remove from dead trees, neither species comes close to hickory in any category, except bark tightness when sap is flowing.
I suspect that the extreme strength and toughness of bitternut and pignut hickory bark renders it impervious to blonding. Certain pignuts may be a partial exception, as the outermost bark layer on that species is sometimes slightly subject to flaking. I removed the outer layer of bark from the pignut hickory mentioned above to illustrate; the inner layer is very hard and tight.
Our observations thus far suggest that Pileated Woodpeckers can excavate through hickory bark, leaving behind small pieces, and can remove narrow strips of hickory bark from already scaled areas.
We have found nothing to indicate that Pileateds can go straight from outer bark to sapwood and remove the hand-sized chunks we’ve found under the scaled hickories in the search area.
All of this strongly supports the hypothesis that Pileated Woodpeckers are incapable of scaling hickories in the manner that I believe to be characteristic of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I’d further argue that the absence of blonding on boles of any hardwood species may be suggestive of ivorybill, provided the bark is thick (over ~.5″) and tight. This is not to suggest that ivorybill work never shows traces of blonding. Though the image quality is poor, Tanner’s Plate 8 may show it.
Something similar to blonding is visible in examples of scaling by other Campephilus species. Thus, an absence of blonding on scaled hickory boles may be a basis for rejecting Pileated altogether and may be suggestive of ivorybill when other tree species are involved.
On a recent visit to a park in Orange County, New York, I found many EAB infested, blonded ash trees. I only had my iPhone with me, but I took some close ups and one shot of the chips on the ground. I also collected some chips and photographed them at home. One of these chips was particularly interesting; while it include some of the outer bark, most of it was from an intermediate layer, further illustrating how the bark is flaked off and that multiple events of stripping are involved before the cambium is exposed.