Headbanger

 

Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

The male downy woodpecker is a dapper urban resident (iStock, used with permission)

Rushing out the door, I went over the list in my head. Workout pants and layered tees—check. Running shoes—check. Coat, hat, gloves—check. Keys and sunglasses—check. MP3 player—check. Everything was in order as I pulled out of the driveway.

Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later I pulled into a parking space at the Power Valley Conservation Nature Center, a 112-acre oasis in suburban St. Louis created by the Missouri Department of Conservation with hilly trails perfect for raising my heart rate for 30-40 minutes. But as I stepped out of the car and began to gather my gear I realized with dismay I’d left behind a critical component—my earbuds.

The thought of a run without my workout mix, and without any caffeine in my system either, was disheartening. I need the motivation of a musical pulse. But I didn’t have time to go back to the house so I set off anyway, prepared to suffer.

About 10 minutes later I realized I was running to a faint drumbeat. At first I thought someone who had NOT forgotten their audio equipment had the volume on their iPod turned up to 11. Once I realized the thumping came from the woods themselves, though, it wasn’t too long before I spotted the drummer, dressed more appropriately for jazz than heavy metal in the stylish black-and-white houndstooth jacket and jaunty red cap of a male downy woodpecker. In spite of the bird’s diminutive size—no more than 6” from head to tail-tip and weighing in at an ounce or less—his wardrobe set him apart on that overcast day from the slate-and-silver hickory bark backdrop.

Downy’s are capable of making a noise disproportionate to their size. When a woodpecker is looking for a mate or claiming a territory, the sound of drumming needs to carry; building a nursery cavity using a beak as a jackhammer isn’t quiet either. But if you’re in the woods and the beat is more bongo than bass, hunger is probably acting as the drummer’s muse. A gentle tap, tap, tap betrays hollow spots beneath the bark where wood-boring insect larvae wait.

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

Woodpeckers can really stick out their tongues (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, used with permission)

Once dinner has been detected, things get… interesting. That short chisel of a beak hardly prepares you for what’s inside—like many other woodpeckers, the downy has a barbed, sticky, and flexible tongue so long it wraps around the skull when at rest. If ever there was a bird ready-made for rock ‘n roll, it’s the woodpecker. Gene Simmons got nothin’ on these headbangers.

The whole tone of my morning changed in an instant. It’s so easy to carry a personal soundtrack wherever I go that I forget about everything I normally tune out when I turn up the volume. As a result of my oversight, I suddenly had a standing-room-only ticket to a great live performance, one I would surely have missed had this excursion proceeded according to plan.  My run could wait. I stayed for several encores and gave that downy an enthusiastic round of applause as he flew off toward his next gig.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author

Border battles

red-bellied woodpecker on fence (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors” but embattled red-bellied woodpeckers must find other ways to protect their territories. (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

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Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself sitting ringside for a brief but furious brawl. Two male red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were having a boundary dispute that started with an argument over some shrubbery then escalated into a full-on aerial assault. Colliding mid-air, they grasped one another by the feet and were so intent on punching, pecking, and plucking, the adversaries flew thoughtlessly over the nearby road directly in front of my car. Luckily, I was making my way slowly along the otherwise quiet suburban street, so I was able to stop and watch.

With my windshield serving as an impromptu HDTV, the smackdown aired for all of 45 thrilling seconds and then, as if in response to a referee’s break command… it was all over.  Each fighter retreated, shouting insults over his shoulder as he returned to his corner.

male and female RBW by Jason Paluck, Creative Commons licenseRed-bellied woodpeckers (let’s just shorten that to RBWs, shall we?) are a medium-sized bird—just over 9” (24 cm) from chisel beak to stiff tail tips with a 13-16” (33-42 cm) wingspan. Like many North American woodpeckers, they wear a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, but their bright red Mohawk (males sport a full forehead-to-neck cap while females wear an abbreviated version) sets them apart. It’s also the reason these birds are so often misidentified as the similar-sized red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), although once the difference is pointed out the mistake is rarely repeated. RBWs take their name from a subtle scarlet stain on their buffy belly.

red-headed vs. red-bellied woodpeckers by Laura Gooch and Jason Paluck, respectively (Creative Commons license)Year-round residents in U.S. wetlands, river bottoms, woods, and wooded suburbs from the Midwest east to the Atlantic coast, RBWs are omnivorous, consuming all manner of  insects, nuts, seeds, sap, and fruit. They store surplus food in various nooks and crannies and, since they don’t migrate, their larders come in handy during winter. This species employs gender-specific foraging strategies—males search for sustenance primarily along bole while females spend the bulk of their time on the boughs.

Biologists don’t often venture out on a limb to officially identify any non-human behavior as play, but I’ve notice the profession has loosened up a bit on this issue over the past decade or so, thankfully. One example of this trend was a description of RBW behavior I read recently. This species will periodically engage in swift, nimble, and unpredictable forest flights, complete with many direction changes to dodge trees, and accompanied by constant excited chatter. The author of this resource was quick to explain that the activity probably has a practical application in that it helps youngsters practice evasive maneuvers that would come in handy should predators be lurking about. However, and surprisingly, the expert also admitted the birds seemed to be having fun.

male red-bellied woodpecker in nest (Photo- Frederick Knapp, Creative Commons license)RBWs are monogamous—for the extent of a breeding season, that is (so perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are serial monogamists)—and both are actively involved in raising young.  They nest in hardwood and pine trees, along with the occasional fence post, by excavating a cavity or stealing one from other birds. What goes around comes around, though—or so says a timeworn adage; RBWs often lose their precious nest holes, in turn, to European (aka common) starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

Assuming the pair can hang on to their home, the female lays two to six white eggs on a cushion of wood chip construction debris and incubates them for 12 days. The hatchlings are altricial, meaning they begin their lives naked, blind, and helpless. They don’t waste any time growing up, and are ready to leave the nest for a first tentative flight when they are 24—27 days old. Depending on the region, the adults may raise from one to three broods in a season.

red-bellied woodpecker at feeder (Photo: ehpien, Creative Commons license)Defending the homestead is a top priority during the child-rearing seasons, especially if the ‘hood includes a well-tended feeder (a gold mine for species able to digest seeds or suet). Even though most bird nestlings can’t tolerate seeds and need a diet composed largely of insects, when Mom and Dad can grab a high-calorie meal from the avian equivalent of a fast-food restaurant, they have extra time to hunt for the more illusive foods their offspring need to develop properly.

Since RBW territories range from 3 to 39 acres protecting the perimeter is far from a simple task, especially when feeding yourself and your family is a full-time job. So, naturally, breaches occur… but everyone trespasses and is trespassed against.  Border skirmishes are common but they rarely result in bloodshed. Research tells us that’s due, in part, to the fact that the intensity of defense behavior tends to decrease as an animal moves away from the center of its territory. Put another way, property rights become less important the farther you are from home. In most cases, both combatants throw in the towel long before there’s a knock-out.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

Drummer boy

male pileated woodpecker by ucumari

The male pileated woodpecker may not have the most sophisticated sense of rhythm, but he's a stylish drummer nonetheless (Photo: ucumari, Creative Commons license).

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The holiday soundtrack, which retailers now begin to cue up before the Thanksgiving dinner plates have been cleared from the table, has a limited playlist. Even though the variety of artists covering these tunes is diverse, it doesn’t take long for the music to become little more than background noise. However, there’s one tune that always snares my attention—instantly I’m transported back in time to another Christmas… to a crisp, sunny afternoon on a favorite trail at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. That day, the sound of a tree-house being constructed high above my head caused me to  glance up, and I caught my first thrilling glimpse of a not-so-little drummer boy.

female pileated by Syd Phillips cc

The female pileated woodpecker doesn't have the red forehead and "mustache" of her male counterpart.

About the size of a crow (16-19 in. or 40-49 cm), the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is North America’s largest woodpecker (unless ornithologists can prove that ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) still exist). At first glance, one might reasonably doubt my ability to determine that this was, indeed, a drummer boy. Adult pileated woodpeckers are easy to identify, but unless you look closely they don’t appear to be sexually dimorphic (males and females of the same species differ in appearance). But I was close enough to see the telltale signs of a male bird—a red forehead and “mustache” to go with the pointy scarlet gnome hat sported by both genders.

Since that first lucky holiday outing, I’ve had the good fortune to see many other pileated woodpeckers, but it’s always a bit of a jolt to the system. Perhaps it’s the combination of size and pointed head, or maybe its the wing-beat pattern during flight, but there’s something eerily prehistoric about this bird. Imaging you are ambling down a wooded path, enjoying the great outdoors but allowing your mind to wander where it will… when out of the corner of your eye your subconscious spots a pterodactylus!

It takes only a second or two for your conscious brain to recognize the error, but not fast enough to prevent your adrenal glands from springing into action, bathing your reptilian brain in fight-or-flight chemicals, turning your heart into a percussion instrument.

Human drummers display a assortment of styles—Afro-Cuban, blues, jazz, zydeco—and the same can be said for the avian set. But there’s not a lot of subtlety to a pileated groove. You can break the beat down into two sets—drumming and tapping.  To my ear, the drumming sounds most like an enthusiastic, albeit novice, carpenter: pound furiously for 2-3 seconds, less forcefully as muscles quickly tire… rest for a minute…  bash the next nail for 2-3 seconds… repeat. Tapping, which is slower and metronomic, often serves as a form of mated pair communication.

pileated foraging hole by Naomi Van Tol ccLooking for signs of pileated woodpeckers in your neck of the woods? It helps to live on the eastern side of the continent, although you can find them across much of Canada and down along a fair bit of the western U.S. coast. This species doesn’t migrate, and once a pair has established a breeding territory they defend it year-round (although they’re a little more relaxed about it during the winter months). So, assuming you’re in the right neighborhood, the next step for spotting this hammer-head is to look for squares. I’m not suggesting these rakishly attired birds aren’t hip—just that they have a stereotypic method of excavating the carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae they like to eat. Unlike many other woodpeckers, pileateds don’t waste time drilling a succession of small holes into tree bark. They gouge out large, roughly rectangular chinks instead; a practice that can be quite damaging to small trees, but it’s beneficial to other bird species who come along and feed on left-overs after the bigger bird has flown the coop.

nestling pileateds by Larry McGahey cc

Pileated woodpecker nest cavities usually have more than one entrance.

Pileated pairs share child-rearing duties, and they prefer to use a different nursery for their offspring every year. That means each April the male carves a new nesting hole, leaving last-year’s crib vacant for other cavity-nesting creatures to use for many years to come. Biologists don’t really understand why some species exhibit nest site fidelity while others do not, but in the case of the pileated woodpecker, this philanthropic service improves the overall health of the ecological community.

All drummer boys—and girls—have a knack for gift-giving, it seems.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Syd Phillips (female pileated); Naomi Van Tol (pileated foraging sign); and Larry McGahey (nestling pileateds).  Thanks also to Marty Stouffer’s Wild America Sound Effects Library for making the recording of a pileated woodpecker’s call and drumming available through a Creative Commons license.