Backyard Wilderness Blog
December 2012
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The large, rectangular entry holes in these white pines were chiseled out by a Pileated woodpecker, (Dryocopus pileatus.) A sight to behold, this shy bird is the largest woodpecker in North America, often making its presence known first by its loud laughter-like cry, or the noisy racket it makes deep in the forest as it shreds and tears its way into a tree!
The coldest months of deep winter were called "the slack time" by the Abenaki people of Vermont. With deep snow, below zero temperatures and bone chilling winds outside making it impossible to forage and too difficult to hunt or fish, families stayed nestled within warm lodges heated by fires stoked with deadfall trees and dried branches found on the ground. Possessing just stone and bone tools, felling large trees for firewood was impossible. Stores of dried meat, fish, nuts, seeds, dried berries, roots and tubers, and pemmican made with ground seeds, berries, and animal fat provided nutritional sustenance. After 1100 AD when cultivated corn, beans and squash found their way to northern lands, these too were dried and stored for the winter. In 1609 when Samuel de Champlain explored the eastern shores of Lake Champlain, (in present day Vermont,) he saw large fields of maize growing near the mouths of the Missisquioi, Lamoille, and Winooski rivers.

Today, for those of us with steel tools, chainsaws, and a little land, winter is a great time to harvest standing dead timber, already dried and ready to burn! On our land no tree is taken before wildlife has the opportunity to make good use of it. There is nothing quite as spectacular as hearing and watching a beautiful Pileated Woodpecker constructing its nest cavity in a long-deceased white pine. A few fallen trees are also left on the ground for our local ursine population. Many times I have found huge logs ripped to chunks and shreds where some black bear has torn it apart with its long claws, searching for grubs.
The only foraging I do in the deep winter months is for firewood. Living about one-third of the way up a steep south-facing hill, it is relatively easy to slide logs downslope when it is snow covered. Laying two, eight to ten footers parallel, I simply step between them, pick up the lower ends, one under each arm, and take a step forward. Instantly, the weight of the logs propels me forward at a comfortably moderate speed all the way to my house. Although it sounds dangerous, the weight of the logs on the ground acts like a drag-rudder providing ample control. If and when anything starts to go wrong, I just drop the logs and they stop well before I do!
Like native peoples who lived here centuries before Europeans, I harvest only standing dead, dry trees or fallen logs, taking just a small percentage of them in any one year. This leaves plenty of habitat for a variety of cavity nesting birds and mammals, as well as breeding ground for a number of insects and grubs relished by bear, raccoon, fox and possum.
Home, sweet home! Our land to the left of the house tilts upward at about a thirty degree angle for almost one-quarter mile and is covered with black cherry, hardhack, wild apple and white ash trees. As they age and die, and after they've outlived any usefulness to wildlife we harvest them sustainably for firewood.
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 Click here to see and hear
  the Pileated woodpecker!