Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Bird spotted was not a black woodpecker


Q: I need your help. I have a nesting box on my property. It seems to be occupied by chickadees. The other day, I saw a flicker sticking his bill in the entrance hole. A short time later, my wife saw a completely black bird with a red crest and a large bill also sticking his bill in the entrance hole. We went on the computer looking for what appeared to be a woodpecker. Up came a photo of the black woodpecker and my wife is sure this is the bird she saw. I have never even heard of this bird. Any ideas? Love your column.

— George Q.

A: First, a reminder to all writing to Naturewatch. Please include your town, and if in another state, include that also. This column is read throughout the U.S. and to a lesser degree, Europe (England, Ireland and Switzerland as examples). Queries without a location always remind me of a reader who asked a question about a certain hummingbird species that I commented in answering, was unlikely to be seen. As we continued to correspond, I learned he was emailing at the time from Tucson, Ariz.

I have never heard of a black woodpecker being seen in the U.S. Its range extends from France across Europe, excluding the United Kingdom and northern Scandinavia. It is also native to parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan and China, and to the Middle East, including Iran and Kazakhstan. The southern limits of this woodpecker's range are in Spain and Italy, and it has also been recorded as a vagrant in Portugal. Nowhere in my source (Wikipedia) does it mention The Berkshires, or North America for that matter. I suggest what you saw was a pileated woodpecker.

Q: This is "Michael from Otis" and have just moved to a new condo development in Great Barrington, Mass., where there is still lots of construction going on.

Not far from my window is a huge dumpster, where the workmen throw assorted debris of wood, nails and other inanimate things. What I find fascinating is that every morning three or four crows descend upon the dumpster, hop inside and stay for a while. There is nothing possible there that they can find to eat.

I know that crows are among the brightest of birds and am wondering if somewhere in their avian memory, they associate the dumpster with thrown-away food and just keep coming.

Either that or they have made sawdust and wood scraps part of their diet.

Very strange behavior for the smartest of birds.

— Michael, Great Barrington, Mass.

A: It could well be "avian memory," but I also think they are finding scraps of workmen's lunches. Or perhaps other food items contributed by passersby.

Reader's comment

It was good to meet you and chat. I got your [Naturewatch] article about Project Native and we had an interesting trip [there] — bought some milkweed, and it is flourishing. I would go back, just to walk around and admire.

By the way, vinca is another invasive; in my garden it is taking over what used to be my herb area — hard to get rid of!

— Chris, Dalton, Mass.

Vinca, or common periwinkle, is not yet listed as invasive in Massachusetts, but having been introduced as an ornamental in the 1700s, it has time to adapt. Its glossy leaves and attractive violet-blue flowers and love of shade make it a welcome ornamental groundcover still sold widely. It needs to be kept under control as it does escape and especially so to our south, and forms dense mats that exclude native species. It can be used to confirm long abandoned homesites, where it may easily have been planted a couple hundred years ago. Root pruning with removal of plants that have outgrown set boundaries will help control its advance.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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