by Pat Jaquith
Nobody has to ask, “What does a woodpecker do?” Only the Pileated Woodpecker does such a fantastic job of chiseling out their food and creating nests for themselves. Several species live in our area year ’round; some are migratory, and we see them in warmer months. Read on for stories about woodpeckers that I’ve observed in our area.
Pileated woodpeckers earn all the superlatives among our woodpeckers: largest size; loudest calls; biggest holes; creators of most affordable housing for other species from tiny birds to Wood ducks and more. They locate their food sources by sound; I noticed the Pileated in the top photo hitching up the trunk, stopping every few inches, tipping its head as if to listen until it started to drill. For 12 minutes after it located the right place to start excavating, it would chisel for a few seconds, pause to listen from different angles, and continue to chisel. The cone-shaped hole it excavated in that time was about the diameter of a half-dollar and about an inch deep when it paused briefly with its beak poised at the edge of the hole, then flew off. In that pause, it is likely it extended its forked tongue to retrieve an insect.
Our smallest woodpecker, the 6.75″ Downy can be distinguished from its larger counterpart, the Hairy, by its short bill and thick ‘moustache’ of feathers at top of bill. They are light enough to forage on galls on weeds and cattails.
Note larger bill and less conspicuous “moustache.” At 9.25″, they are one and one-half times longer than a Downy, and they forage on trees.
Three-toed woodpeckers usually work on one infested tree quite intensely before moving on. They often scrape or chip off bark, seeking insects just under the bark. When they drill holes, as above, it’s usually a small hole. Females do not have the yellow cap. The toe arrangement is two point forward; one back.
Flickers seem to be pretty accustomed to living around people. They visit bird feeders – especially if there’s suet out, nest in snags nearby, rap out their important messages on metallic chimney covers, and even perform courtship displays when we are in sight. They are large (12.5″) birds, willing to bend and contort themselves to accommodate too-small suet feeders. Around here, the Red-shafted species is most prevalent; however, occasionally we see an ‘intergrade’ bird which has some features of the eastern Yellow-shafted species – a black malar, a red crescent on the back of the head, or some golden under-feather colors.
Flickers are ground-feeders, locating ants with their probing bill. I often see conical depressions in soft dirt at the base of trees; they may well be the work of flickers. The pile of colorful feathers above might be the result of predation by a Cooper’s Hawk that we saw frequently.
My heart beat a bit faster than normal when I spotted my “lifer” (and only) Lewis’s woodpecker! Named for Meriwether Lewis, this woodpecker is on the Species of Concern watchlist, as its population appears to be in decline. This colorful migrant comes to our area in summer for nesting. Acting more like a flycatcher than a woodpecker, it flew out to catch an insect in flight or dropped down to the ground to pick up an insect. They do not excavate their own nest holes, but it’s likely they take advantage of a Pileated woodpecker’s work. This one appeared to be staying near a Ponderosa pine snag that had a big round hole similar to the kind Pileated woodpeckers make for their own nest. I’ll always be on the watch for these colorful 10-11″ birds!
These migrants arrive here in March-April and take up drumming on resonant trees or power poles. There is a close resemblance between the sexes of most woodpeckers and sapsuckers, but the Williamson’s sapsuckers look so different they were once thought to be two different species. I thought this female was some kind of flicker before I did some research!
The very colorful Red-naped Sapsucker returns in early spring from its winter break in southern US and Mexico. I happened to hear persistent drumming when I was out walking and finally located the Red-naped Sapsucker above on the dry bole of a bark-free Douglas fir tree. Using that stub of a branch as its drum, the sound called me in from at least a half mile away. It would drum for a few rounds, stop and look around for a few seconds, then repeat. After 20 minutes with no responses I could hear, it moved over to a nearby live tree and drilled a few holes. Another time when I heard it drumming, a similar drum roll came from the top of the hill; the first one immediately flew in that direction.
These sapsuckers are responsible for drilling shallow 1/4″ diameter holes in a rows on Aspen and Birch which they visit frequently to lick up sap and feast on insects that are attracted to the sap. Hummingbirds, other birds, and squirrels visit these holes, too.
The immature female above was recovering from an unfortunate window collision. Note the red patch on its throat, but not under the chin. In its next molt, the tan feathers will be white.
Birds are amazing communicators! I wonder if the drumming is in code. They have different calls and different songs. Some birds seem to have calls that other species understand and respond to. I look forward to hearing them the next time I’m out!