Jack Savage's Forest Journal: Identifying the prey and the predator in a woodland whodunit

By JACK SAVAGE February 02. 2018 6:14PM
It's an eat and be-eaten world in the woods. Can you determine from this photo who was the prey and who was the predator? (Photo by Tom Howe)

Among the pleasures of working for an organization like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is the privilege of interacting daily with colleagues who are constantly fascinated by what we find in the woods.

You can't help but learn something every day.

Colleague Tom Howe, our senior director of land conservation, not only spends time in the woods with landowners who are thinking about conserving their land, but also has his own stretch of woodlot in central New Hampshire.

While exploring in a stand of mature predominantly red oak, he came across the scene shown in the picture at right. He noted no tracks, human or animal, leading to or from the "scene of the crime" other than those of Tom himself, whose boot is shown in the lower right-hand corner.

Last week, he shared the photo with the staff at the Forest Society and challenged us to answer two questions:

Who was the victim?

Who perpetrated the "crime"?

Our resident crime-scene sleuths went to work, examining the photo closely for clues. If you'd like to take a closer look and solve the case yourself, you can find it at www.forestsociety.org/csiNH.

The answer to the first question helps lead you to plausible answers to the second question, so start there. Spoiler Alert: A likely solution to the case is found below, so stop reading now if you want to figure it out for yourself.
The relative size of the bird, the black and white feathers with a narrow leading edge, and the small red crest feathers suggest that the victim was a Pileated Woodpecker. (ELLEN KENNEY)

Holmesian deduction

Among our staff, several noted the relatively large size of the bird that met its end. And they noticed the red in the photo-which if you look closely, is not blood, but red feathers, of the size that might be from the bird's crest.

So what large bird has a red crest that contrasts starkly with its black and white feathers? And what predator would make a meal of him?

Elementary, dear Watson. Our director of education, Dave Anderson, "showed his work" with this step-by-step thought process:

"The first impression is that it is a woodpecker due to stiff flight feathers from the wing with narrow leading edge.

"There are a lot of black and white feathers - and a fairly large bird based on the boot in the photo, which provides scale.

"Besides woodpeckers, the only other black and white feathered bird is a spruce grouse, but they are NOT likely to be in the oak-hemlock-mixed hardwood forest of central New Hampshire. Spruce grouse are confined to high elevations in the White Mountains.

"So I am guessing this is a fairly large woodpecker, and I am going to venture a guess of a pileated woodpecker."

Anderson continued: "I see no obvious mammal predator tracks in the photo. I do see a spray of bird guano in upper right-hand corner -either from this the deceased or from the killer. That leads me to guess that the prey would have been killed by a hawk or owl.

"Owls are generally not taking birds as prey. The tend to eat ground-dwelling prey like small mammals - rodents, like mice and voles. Exceptions include great horned owls who eat other owls. For example, they will eat barred owls. And barred owls will eat smaller saw-whet owls. So owls do eat other owls.

"But owls are nocturnal. Woodpeckers are diurnal creatures. They are sheltered at night.

"So that leads me to guess that the predator was a hawk. A wintering hawk.

"So, who was the woodpecker's most likely killer?

"What hawks are still around in winter? Goshawks (accipiter) and redtails (Buteo).

"Red-tails are numerous along roadsides - but they are soaring hawks, not woodland hawks.

"The accipiters specialize in eating birds, and beside goshawk there are two smaller versions: Cooper's hawk and sharp-shinned hawks - but they often migrate out of New Hampshire in winter. (Although some do remain near birdfeeders as long as prey is plentiful.)

"I know that a pileated woodpecker is too large of prey for a sharp-shinnned hawk.

"And so my guess is that a Cooper's hawk or a goshawk killed the pileated woodpecker (with claws and beak in the forest)."

That's what Anderson deduced. But perhaps you have a different theory - say, Colonel Mustard with the knife in the Conservatory. Let us know!

Jack Savage is the executive editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire's Conservation Magazine published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at jsavage@forestsociety.org.

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