Just when you think you have seen everything you find you haven’t. That was the case this week when Tess Klien recently reported on a rare leucistic pileated woodpecker along the Milwaukee River Valley where it has been seen only twice before, once in April 2017 and again in May 2019. So, what is leucism?
Leucism is a condition in which there is a partial loss of pigmentation in an animal — which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, but not the eyes. This contrasts with albinism, a condition in which there is total a loss of pigmentation. Pigmentation, or melanin, is what gives skin, feathers, hair and eyes their color.
A photo of the leucistic pileated woodpecker was posted on the Milwaukee Riverkeeper Facebook page. Who are the Riverkeepers? The Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a science-based advocacy organization working for swimmable, fishable rivers throughout the Milwaukee River Basin. Their mission is to protect, improve and advocate for water quality, riparian wildlife habitat, and sound land management, so all can enjoy the healthy waterways of the Milwaukee River Basin. It is the first time I have heard of them and it sounds like a nice group to have around.
And, of course, those of you who read this column faithfully know that the pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North American and it likes to hang out in mature woods with lots of dead trees. Its favorite foods are carpenter ants and insect grubs found by excavating elongate holes in dead trees. We have enjoyed two pileated woodpeckers all winter long coming to our suet feeders and competing with the wild turkeys for the berries on our red splendor crab trees.
As predicted, few winter finches have migrated south this winter in search of food because they have abundant supplies of natural food up in Canada, so most area bird feeders have very few birds. Sue Kartman has spotted a few red crossbills feeding on pinecone seed around Fifield. Sue has also observed playful otters on Sailor Creek Flowage and a common goldeneye on the North Fork Flambeau River in Park Falls. At our Nature Education Center, a flock of about 200 pine siskins descend upon our driveway every few days to pick up grit for their gizzards that helps grind up seeds they eat. So far, the siskins haven’t come to our bird feeders because they have plenty of natural food like white birch seed to eat. Recent signs of spring include courtship songs of black-capped chickadees and northern cardinals while our numerous woodpeckers have started their territorial drumming. We also saw ten deer walking across our pond last week and they all looked in good condition. Kathy Kascewicz had a northern shrike at her feeder. Some wildlife are struggling to find food in the deep snows, but temperatures have been mostly mild for this time of year which should help them survive the winter. We, and the wildlife too, are enjoying the longer days.