For the Birds: Woodpeckers and rhythm

Photo by Chris Bosak A male yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a dead tree branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

I am quite sure I am not his intended target, but when the yellow-bellied sapsucker drums on the hollow branch in my side yard, I come running. I mentioned in last week’s column that I have a yellow-bellied sapsucker that drums on a branch in my side yard and a pileated woodpecker that drums on a branch in the backyard. Woodpeckers often drum on objects such as hollow branches, the sides of houses, gutters, and chimney flashings. They pick objects such as these because the noise resonates far and wide. This drumming is done to attract mates or announce territory. Obviously, they do not tap on gutters or chimney flashings to find food or make homes.

They may pick hollow branches to make homes, naturally, but the territorial and mate-attracting drumming is more rhythmic and the cadence is specific to individual woodpecker species.

I also mentioned in last week’s column that I was impressed the first time I saw a birdwatcher identify the type of woodpecker from its drumming in the distance. I still do not have that skill down very well, but I am getting a lot of practice distinguishing the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the pileated woodpecker. Just as it is exciting when a bird chooses your property to eat, drink, or make a home, it is also exciting when a woodpecker chooses a branch on your property for its drumming.

It may not be so exciting when they return to your siding, gutter or chimney flashing for this purpose, however. If this is happening, there are measures you can take to try to stop it. Of course, nothing is a guarantee when we are talking about wildlife.

There are literally dozens of products on the market to deter woodpeckers from tapping on your house. Do a simple Internet search for “stop woodpecker damage” and they will all pop up.

New England has several woodpecker types. Most of New England has the aforementioned yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker, as well as downy and hairy woodpecker, and northern flicker. Southern New England and increasingly the middle part of the region also has red-bellied woodpecker. The northern part of New England features the black-backed woodpecker and, to a lesser degree, the American three-toed woodpecker.

The red-headed woodpecker is also an occasional sighting in New England. Many people mistakenly call the red-bellied woodpecker the red-headed woodpecker because it does indeed have a red head, or at least mostly red. The red-bellied woodpecker has a faint pinkish wash on the belly, which gives it its name. The red-headed woodpecker, indeed, has a fully red head. They are more common south and west of New England but, as I mentioned, are occasionally seen in our region.

This is just my own theory, and it hasn’t been scientifically proven to my knowledge, but the dreaded diseases that have ravaged so many of our tree species have greatly benefited woodpeckers. They build their nests in dead trees and branches, and sadly, between hemlock woolly adelgid, chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and locust borers, they have plenty of dead trees to choose from. And, of course, lots of drumming branches.

Sapsucker drumming

Photo by Chris Bosak A male yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a dead tree branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

Woodpeckers bang their bills on objects for a variety of reasons, such as looking for food, hollowing out a hole for nesting, and proclaiming their territory. To proclaim their territory, they find an object that is particularly loud, such as a hollow branch, side of a house or chimney flashing. This guy (you can tell it’s a guy from the red throat) found a hollow branch in my side yard for that purpose. I posted a photo of a female sapsucker (sans red throat) not too long ago and included a classic bit from The Honeymooners. Click here for that post.

Hairy woodpecker stops to smell the flowers

Photo by Chris Bosak A hairy woodpecker perches on a broken branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

I don’t normally keep flowers alive for very long so I was happy when this female hairy woodpecker stopped by to check out the blooms.

Birds to brighten your day: May 19

Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a vine in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is one of the more underrated woodpeckers in New England, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t seen as often as downy, hairy or red-bellied woodpeckers or have the wow factor of flickers or pileated woodpeckers. It’s always a treat to see these handsome birds with an interesting eating habit. This is from allaboutbirds.org: “They feed at sapwells—neat rows of shallow holes they drill in tree bark. They lap up the sugary sap along with any insects that may get caught there.”

And, of course, there’s always this:

(Repeat text for context:  I’m running out of COVID-19 lockdown themes so from now until things get back to some semblance of normalcy, I will simply post my best photo from the previous day. You could say it fits because of its uncertainty and challenge. I’ll call the series “A Day on Merganser Lake,” even though that’s not the real name of the lake I live near in southwestern Connecticut, it’s just a nod to my favorite duck family.)

The sapsucker shown is a female. Males have red throats.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a vine in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Birds to brighten your day: May 7

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake XVI

I heard a loud tapping (no make that banging) coming from the backyard. I glanced out the window and noticed a male pileated woodpecker giving a dead hemlock tree a good working over. Chips and even bigger pieces of wood broke free and scattered under the ground. He didn’t stay long, maybe five minutes, but I got some nice shots of him.

Female and male pileated woodpeckers both have red heads, but only the male has the red “mustache.”

(Repeat text for context:  I’m running out of COVID-19 lockdown themes so from now until things get back to some semblance of normalcy, I will simply post my best photo from the previous day. You could say it fits because of its uncertainty and challenge. I’ll call the series “A Day on Merganser Lake,” even though that’s not the real name of the lake I live near in southwestern Connecticut, it’s just a nod to my favorite duck family.)

Another of my favorite woodpeckers

I posted last week about seeing a family of pileated woodpeckers looking for insects in my backyard. Also last week, I had a chance encounter with another one of my favorite woodpecker species: the northern flicker.

I was drawn to the backyard as I heard a flicker noisily issuing its alarm call over and over. It turns out, a cat was walking through the yard and several birds were scolding the feline. The flicker, however, was by far the loudest and most agitated. There were most likely young flickers around but I didn’t see them.

Flickers are handsome birds with an interesting assortment of colors and decorations. Note the bib under the neck and spots on the chest and belly. The bird shown in the photographs is a female. Males have a black “mustache.”

The northern flicker is made up of two subspecies: yellow-shafted flicker and red-shafted flicker, which were once considered two separate species. Here in New England, we have the yellow-shafted variety. The name comes from the yellow feathers on the underside of the tail and wings.

More photos for … ‘Adult pileated woodpecker shows youngster the ropes’

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young pileated woodpecker searches a fallen tree trunk for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.

Here are some more photos from my recent pileated woodpecker experience. Here’s the original post, in case you missed it.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young pileated woodpecker knocks on a fallen tree trunk as it looks for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A young pileated woodpecker knocks on a fallen tree trunk as it looks for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A young pileated woodpecker knocks on a fallen tree trunk as it looks for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.

Back to the adult …

Adult pileated woodpecker shows youngster the ropes

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker knocks on a fallen tree trunk as it looks for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.

I heard a loud banging from my side yard the other day. I assumed a neighbor was doing some work involving a hammer as noises echo and carry far in the small lake community in which I live.

Like any good, nosy neighbor, I stepped onto the deck to see what was going on. The noise was coming from the edge of the woods and it wasn’t a neighbor with a hammer at all, it was four pileated woodpeckers looking for a meal. The main noisemaker was the adult male who was banging away on a tree trunk that had fallen to the ground many, many years ago. He was perched on top of the trunk and a young male was a few feet away on the ground watching his dad go to work. An adult female and another youngster (I couldn’t tell the gender) were working on the trunks of nearby standing trees.

Twice, the adult male found an insect or worm and stretched its neck toward the youngster to offer the morsel. The youngster, of course, accepted. The daddy pileated woodpecker worked its way along the fallen trunk and eventually flew to the nearby trunk where the mother was busy looking for meals. The young male took his father’s place atop the fallen trunk and started pounding some holes of his own. I couldn’t tell if he was successful or not, but he certainly learned a thing or two by watching his parents at work.

Male and female pileated woodpeckers have red heads. Only males have the red “mustache” extending from the bill.

Here’s one of the adult feeding the youngster. I was a fair distance away and didn’t want to get closer and risk breaking up the family group, hence the poor quality of the photo.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker feeds a youngster, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.

New England’s woodpeckers

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker looks for insects at the base of a tree at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., April 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker looks for insects at the base of a tree at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., April 2017.

I’ve been lucky enough this week to have seen six of the woodpeckers that live in New England. In fact, early in the week I had for the first time a yellow-bellied sapsucker at my feeder. It made two quick visits to a suet feeder and disappeared for good.

The species I saw were downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker. Those are the most commonly seen woodpeckers in New England. Red-headed woodpeckers are seen on occasion and a few species (black-backed and three-toed) require a trip to far northern New England to see.

Songbirds, such as warblers and grosbeaks, steal the show during spring, but woodpeckers Continue reading

Working for peanuts

Photo by Chris Bosak A downy woodpecker eats peanuts from a feeder in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

Here’s a downy woodpecker getting peanuts from the homemade feeder I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

It’s funny how birds prefer their food offered in different ways. White-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers are all over this feeder. They typically perch on the feeder and peck away at the shell to expose the nut inside. My other peanut eaters — blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and tufted titmice — barely touch this feeder and prefer to grab their peanuts from a platform feeder and fly off with it.