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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Peaceable Man Files #4: Drummers of the Woods, Unite!

There are an awful lot of dead trees in the woods around my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania.

In fact, in case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of dead trees throughout Pennsylvania and across the eastern and central U.S. states right now, and most of them are ash trees that have been destroyed by a destructive little parasite known as the Emerald Ash Borer. This nasty beetle apparently hitchhiked a ride on a pallet from China to Detroit about twenty years ago and has since been killing tens of millions of innocent ash trees through the country.

I see evidence of that damage everywhere I look when I’m out on walks with Cassie. Dead trees everywhere. Every storm that passes by knocks down more dead trunks and branches that need to be cleared from walking paths. While I haven’t done a scientific survey, my rough guess is that the ash borer has killed close to a quarter of the trees in the forest around my cabin up north. Those percentages seem to hold for the trees down south in the Lansdale area as well.

Such are the downsides of globalization. The spotted lanternfly, also from Asia, is likewise doing major damage to trees and plants in the eastern United States. Yes, our tree population right now is under a lot of stress.

Interestingly, though, all of those dead trees have been a boon to some of the bird species in the area—in particular, our woodpecker populations. In recent years, I’ve been seeing and hearing more woodpeckers than ever while I’m out walking. Curious about the connection, I recently reached out to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, and the good people there confirmed my suspicions that the infestation of ash borers is in fact leading to an increase in the population of certain species of woodpeckers—especially the downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers—as well as the white-breasted nuthatch. In addition to feeding on the beetle larva within tree bark, the woodpeckers and nuthatches make nests in the dead trees, particularly in the winter months.

Here’s an interesting article from Walter Koenig, a senior visiting professor at the center, on the phenomenon. Unfortunately, Koenig says, there aren’t enough of the woodpeckers to eat enough larva to stop the infestation, and ash trees continue to die by the millions. Still, it shows the interconnectedness of nature, and how one species’ misfortune is the boon of another.

So if you hear a woodpecker busily drumming away in a nearby woods, know that it’s doing its part to keep our natural world in balance. I, for one, love to hear these industrious drummers of the woods doing their work in my daily walks. Especially on still, windless mornings, their distinctive rat-a-tat-tats echo through the forest. The woodpeckers tend to move horizontally around the bark while foraging, and then will suddenly fly off to another tree. One moment the hammering will be coming from in front of me; the next, it will be fifty yards off to my left, and I’m straining for a glimpse of the woodpecker’s red head.

Some days, when there are multiple woodpeckers at work, the hammering echoes through the forest from all around, and I am reminded that I am standing in a living, breathing construction site where the work never ends. This forest is not a static thing but a constant work-in-progress where things are forever being torn down and grown back again, and those processes are happening simultaneously.

Kind of like human beings, eh?


A quick note of thanks to everyone who has supported my debut book The Long Walk Home since it officially came out a week ago.

The publisher, Blydyn Square Books, informs me that it has nearly gone through the first printing and is going out for a second run. In case you hadn’t heard, we will be holding a launch party the afternoon of Saturday, May 7 (1-4:30 p.m.) at the Red Cedar Grille in Colmar. The publisher will have on hand if you’d like to pick one up without having to pay for shipping. Reminder that I’m donating my author’s proceeds from the book this year to the Christian humanitarian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, in memory of my late good friend and former colleague Peter Noll, a dedicated servant who passed away in 2021.

Hope to see you there!

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