Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My Backyard Woodpeckers...

After days of mostly staying inside due to a 5-day rain storm (I admit it feels great to see the sun this morning.... first time since at least Friday), I did a lot of watching the birds in my yard. Then I got to thinking about woodpeckers.

I personally don't think they get the credit they deserve for being so intricately evolved to actually 'cling' to trees. All birds evolved in their own environments and habitats, created a huge diversity of bird species. The same goes for woodpeckers... some go for wood boring bugs, some go for sap and smaller insects, some are evolved to be dessert cactus fliers, others eat seeds and fruits, some will feed on the ground, and the biggest is the hardest to find (in CT, and besides Red-headed, of course).

Woodpeckers have evolved extremely thick and strong tail feathers which act as a prop when clinging to the side of a tree. They have long bills that slam into wood and chip away to find food, and bore out a nesting hole. Most fly in an undulating pattern, dipping and flapping their wings as their altitude varies. And for the purposes of my blog, I'm only going to speak of those I have, or see, in my yard and the woods behind it.

Throughout the year, and in migration times, I have been able to pull all but a Red-headed in one day in my immediate area (within 1/10mi.). Those species are, from smallest to largest... Downy WP, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (mostly in migrations, sometimes later into winter), Hairy WP, Red-bellied WP (the former and later are similar in size... only), the Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted ssps), and the huge Pileated WP.

(all photos were taken by me in my yard or woods...I have better photos of all but one of the species, but not from my yard/woods)

(male Red-bellied Woodpecker eating a basic seed mixture during a snow storm)

Just these 6 species have dramatic differences in their appearance and behavior... but all can be in the same woods at the same time. The Downy WP is basically a miniature of the Hairy WP, with defining characteristics being the longer bill of the Hairy, the often obvious difference in size, Hairies have completely white outer tail feathers while Downies have slight black spots/barring on their outer tail feathers... and I've seen the subtle black 'spur' that slightly creeps downwards into the white breast of the Hairy. In the males of both species, they have red coloring in the back of their white supercillium towards the back of the head. This red is absent in females.

Both species show a lot of white on the breast and in the barring, and sometimes can become 'stained' by the sap when boring out nesting cavities in the Spring.

(female Downy Woodpecker eating a finch blend once the suet was kicked)

(female Hairy Woodpecker, showing the yellow stains from creating it's nesting cavity. She was named 'Dirty Hairy'.)

After the Downy and Hairy, the next closest look-alike would be the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.... but only at a far distance without optical aid. The YB Sapsucker has a mainly black back with slight white barring, which varies from male to female and from individual to individual. The YB Sapsucker has a black breast, while Hairy and Downies have white. The wingtips of the Sapsuckers (not just the YB) extend much closer to the tip of the tail than in the 'twins'. Though called the Yellow-bellied, it isn't a bright yellow, and can be washed out in certain angles and light. The sure-fire field mark I go by is the red forehead in both sexes, and the red throat of the male. YB Sapsuckers also have large and obvious white wing patch.
(male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do (I believe) breed in the northern climes of CT... as I've seen a male in Kent, CT in mid-July. However, that range is limited and does not extend to my town (which is both coastal and in-land due to a tall skinny outline). Though they do indeed pass through my area in Spring and Fall migrations. As a matter of fact, there should be a few around as I creep up to my departure date (45 days!!!!!!!) and the Spring migration gets into full swing.

Up next is an often confusing woodpecker for the common backyard birder who doesn't know the rarity of what they are often mistaken for. The Red-bellied woodpecker does indeed have a red head, though the entire side of it's face is grey, and females only have red present on the nape and the feathers juuuust before the bill... the much rarer Red-headed WP has an entirely red head, and has much more solid black than the Red-bellied. The Red-bellied WP doesn't have an intense red belly (another reason why this species can be incorrectly identified) when seen, though some have a heavier hue than others. This color variation and it's ease of viewing is very similar to the yellow of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

(male Red-bellied Woodpecker)

The Red-belly, as opposed to the solid black and solid whites of the Red-headed, are mostly grayish with black and white barring on the entire back and it's central tail feathers. When scrutinized together, the difference between the Red-bellied and Red-headed woodpeckers is quite measurable.

Next in line, and in size, is the Northern Flicker. Here in CT we have the 'yellow-shafted' ssps of the Northern Flicker. Among others, the main differences are the color of the underside of the wings (hence, yellow or red shafted), and the mustacial face stripe in males... yellow-shafted Flickers have a black stripe, while male red-shafted have red. Also, the yellow-shafted has a red crescent on the nape that is absent in the red-shafted race. Hybrids have been seen in CT, and are not uncommon in middle American and the Great Plains (same thing?).

(Northern Flicker from behind at suet feeder... I think this was a female)

Last, but certainly not least, is the large and imposing Pileated Woodpecker. This species is the closest to Woody Woodpecker you're gonna get....

(female Pileated Woodpecker)

The Pileated is a huge Woodpecker, and large backyard bird in general at 16-19" in length. The birds loud calls are somewhat similar to the Northern Flicker, but once you have heard one... you can't make the mistake again. My very first sighting of a Pileated, anywhere, was in my woods. I was sitting cross-legged in a powerline cut that runs through the woods behind my house and being amazed at the bird species I was seeing. I had only been birding for barely a month (first notebook entry March 16th, 2008.... bird seen on April 20, 2008), and I was loving my first encounters with Catbirds and Towhees. Out of nowhere, the loudest and most raucous call I had ever heard sounded off directly behind me. I turned around, and was treated to my lifer Pileated Woodpecker, a female working on a dead limb. I snagged a few photos... and they remain my only since... though I've had several more encounters with this species in several different locations in a few different states.

(female Pileated Woodpecker...notice BLACK mustacial stripe... males show red.)

Even though no one can mistake a Pileated for another woodpecker (unless you live in Louisiana!!), some identifying marks are it's entirely black back, wings, and tail... huge amounts of white on the underside of the wings... an obvious white stripe running up the side of the neck to the auricular area, and then shooting out to the bill below the birds black eye-line. Both sexes have large red crests on the head, though the female has a black forehead and mustacial stripe... the male has red down to the bill, and a red mustacial stripe. Both have white throats... so the lines, going from throat to crest are white, red, white, black (eyeline), white (supercillium), red (crest) in the male.... and white, black, white, black (eyeline), white (supercillium), to red and black (as mentioned, the females red crest does not cover the forehead like in males).

Woodpeckers are a common backyard feeder visitor, feeding on a range of things offered to them.... mostly suet cakes, but also apples, seeds, peanut butter mixtures, and bugs on the ground (Flickers are pretty much the only woodpecker I get that will actually feed, and forage, on the ground and lawns). The most common, and bravest, is the smallest... the Downy. When I open the back door, everyone leaves except the Downies. And the reason that brought me to write a post about woodpeckers, is the ferocity in which the Red-belly defends it's chosen suet cake from other woodpeckers, blackbirds, house sparrows, or any other feathered intruder. They are the only ones who refuse to leave... this morning a lone female came to the 3 cake linked chain, and successfully fended off about 8 Starlings.... who are notorious for devouring suet cakes in minutes.

All but one of the 6 species mentioned has fed in my yard at my suet... the only one who hasn't is the Pileated, though they certainly will go to them. I believe my problem is that the cages, and the tree they are on (a 3 year old Maple) may be too small for this huge bird.

Woodpeckers are amazing examples of evolution, and are always interesting to watch. I like to equate the Pileated Woodpecker with the Bald Eagle.... no matter how many times you see it, it remains an awesome sight.



  1. Hey Brian,

    The first decent bird I found in CT was a Red-headed Woodpecker out at Stratford Point along with Penny Solum so I guess there's always a chance for one to show up in your yard so keep your eyes peeled.

    You had a question about CP birding - perhaps I can send you a link to my blog post on how to bird CP in NY: http://underclearskies.com/2009/09/11/birding-central-park-nyc/ there's loads of good info in the links etc.


  2. Everyday at the Boothe hawkwatch just down the road from my house I could picture a Red-headed being there. It's perfect for them there.

    Thanks for the link. When I will be going to CP when migration is in full swing, and I am pretty excited. I also can't wait to check out Jamaica Bay.