Archive for Sunday, July 10, 2016

For the Love of Birds: Having a head-banging party with the woodpeckers

July 10, 2016

It’s hard to say which woodpecker is my favorite. There are too many to choose from and all are so much fun to watch. The little Downey woodpeckers have a straight bill, blocky head and wide shoulders.

They can be one of the first identification challenges for beginning bird watchers due to the likeliness of the larger Hairy woodpecker. The Downey’s have black underparts that are checked with white on the wings, the head is boldly striped, and the back has a broad white stripe down the center. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head. The Hairy woodpecker has a much longer bill and longer tail feathers than the Downey. Their bill is nearly the same length as their head. The Hairy will often announce their arrival with a sharp chirp before landing on feeders.

The Red Bellied Woodpeckers have striking barred backs and gleaming red caps. They can stick out their tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of their beak. They eat suet, peanuts, and sometimes sunflower seeds. They lay their eggs on the bed of wood chips left over from excavating their nest cavity. They do return to the same tree to excavate a new nest below the nest of the previous year. A little confusion on the name because there is only a slight tint of red, maybe orange, on their belly and a bright redcrown that extends down the nape of their neck.

Northern Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with a white rump that’s visible when perched. There are two types: yellow-shafted and red-shafted flickers. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are bright yellow (yellow shafted). They have brown plumage that is richly patterned with black spots. They fly in an up and down path using heavy flaps then glides, like many woodpeckers. The Flickers have a black bib on upper breast. The yellow-shafted males have a black moustache and red spot on nape of neck. The red-shafted, which are winter visitors, have a red moustache and red spot on nape of neck.

The flickers are one of the only woodpeckers to eat from feeders and on the ground, looking for ants and beetles. The yellow-shafted woodpecker will nest in Kansas.

One of the few woodpeckers to store their food and cover it with wood and bark is the Red-Headed Woodpecker. This bird has an all red head and a solid black back. It has a white rump, chest and belly with large white patches on wings that flash when in flight. Unlike most woodpeckers the male and female look alike. They hide insects and seeds in cracks in wood, under bark, in fence posts, and under roof shingles. Grasshoppers are usually stored alive, but wedged into crevices so tightly that they cannot escape. Prospective mates play “hide and seek” with each other around dead stumps and once mated they may stay together for several years.

The Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. It has a long neck and a triangular crest that sweeps off the back of its head. The bill is long and chisel like, about the length of their head. They are mostly black with white stripes on the face and neck and a flaming red crest. Males have a red stripe on the cheek and the females do not. Considering their large size of 19” the pileated woodpeckers are somewhat shy and prefer large wooded areas. Their most favorite food is carpenter ants.

A few fun facts about woodpeckers – most species are born completely naked, unlike many other birds that are completely covered with soft down feathers when they hatch. Woodpeckers are among a very few birds that have zygodactyl feet – which simply means they have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards. Most birds have an arrangement of three toes forward and one backwards. Having two sets of opposing toes gives them a much better grip on the trees they land on and climb.

While excavating a cavity, a woodpecker’s head can strike a tree’s surface at speeds up to 13-15 miles per hour and do it at over 100 strokes per minute. In order for the woodpeckers to survive this force each blow is directed not to the brain, but downward towards very strong neck muscles that act as shock absorbers.

Hope everyone had a big BANG on the Fourth of July and enjoyed reading this article about woodpeckers. Happy Birding!

— Colleen Winter is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, 13222 W. 62nd Terrace, in Shawnee.

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