Loudoun’s Woodpeckers (Part 2 of 2)
Vol. 13 Issue 4, Winter 2008
By Nicole Hamilton
For Part 1, click here:
Woodpeckers are unique birds that have been around for approximately 50 million years. Their drumming, which to many Native Americans symbolized the heartbeat of the earth, can be heard in woods around the world as they are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
As pointed out in the last issue of the Habitat Herald, there are over 200 species of woodpeckers worldwide. Part I of this article described three of the seven species found in Loudoun County: Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied. Now, we will look at the Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker, and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. All of these except the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are year-round residents.
Red-headed Woodpecker: The Red-headed Woodpecker is well named. It has an entirely bright red head, jet black back, white belly, and large wing patches. This woodpecker will engage in flycatching, especially for brightly colored insects, and also will forage on the ground. Establishment of territory and courtship takes place in May and June. For nesting, they prefer to use trees that have been long dead and are barkless, and they like forest edges. They may use the male’s winter roosting cavity for the nest or excavate a new one. The female conveys her acceptance of the cavity by tapping on the tree. Interestingly, Red-headed Woodpeckers have been known to use fence posts and utility poles for nest sites as well.
Through spring and summer, insects are the most important food for this woodpecker. They eat ants, wood-boring insects, beetle larvae, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and small rodents. In winter, their food is similar to that of the Red-bellied Woodpecker with an interesting difference: when they cache their food, they add a small moistened wood chip to help conceal it. Red-headed Woodpeckers also feed from sap wells drilled by sapsuckers and will make their own wells by scaling off bark. They collect and cache food quickly in a few spots and then disperse it at their leisure. Red-headed Woodpeckers have been in significant decline and today are fairly uncommon to see. In the 1800s, naturalist John Burroughs recorded that Red-headed Woodpeckers were more abundant than American Robins in Washington, DC! Today this is certainly not the case, and while not yet endangered, they are on the Federal Watch List. Because they require dead trees and snags to roost and nest, the biggest threat to this bird’s survival is human activity in cleaning up dead trees in wood lots.
Pileated Woodpecker: The Pileated Woodpecker is our largest woodpecker, being about the size of a crow. Pileated Woodpecker territories span 150–200 acres as they require large forest areas with large dead trees big enough to accommodate their nests. Because even a mature forest may have only one or two dead trees or snags large enough to support a pair, every dead tree is critical, and forest clearing or cleanup can mean the end of breeding. The pair will begin courtship in late March with nest excavation occurring in mid-April. Both the male and female excavate the cavity. They raise just one brood per year, and they rarely leave it unattended. The incubating bird will not leave the nest until its mate is at the cavity hole ready to make the switch. The non-incubating bird stays close as it forages, in case of threats from snakes or squirrels. They defend their nests primarily from squirrels which try to take them over as their own. If a squirrel does decide to take the nest, it will usually win the battle. Eggs are laid around mid-April, and rearing lasts through the end of August. It takes 3–4 weeks for the nestlings to grow strong enough to fledge. Fledglings remain with their parents for several months and are fed as they continue to grow. During this time, parents use a version of the “cuk-cuk” call to keep in touch with the young.
At the end of summer the young disperse; however, the mated pair remains together throughout the year. They sleep in separate roost cavities, but at dawn the first one awakened gives the other a “cuk-cuk” call, and the two emerge from their roosts and fly off together to forage. They return to their roost cavities about an hour before sunset. Pileated Woodpeckers feed year-round almost entirely on carpenter ants that live in the central part of the tree. The ants bore in to the heartwood of diseased trees creating vertical galleries. Even when the tree appears healthy from the outside, the Pileated Woodpecker detects the movement of the ants inside and chisels in to get them. They also eat the berries of poison ivy, sumac trees, Virginia creeper, dogwood, and wild grape. Forest fragmentation along with cleaning up of old forest woodlots are the greatest threats to this, our largest, woodpecker.
Northern Flicker: The Northern Flicker’s call is the commonly heard “wicka-wicka” and “klee-yer.” No other North American bird consumes as many ants as the Northern Flicker. Unlike many other woodpeckers, they are quite comfortable foraging on the ground. Their beaks are shaped slightly differently from other woodpeckers — rather than a chisel, the beak is shaped more like a blade. This enables the bird to dig into ant mounds tunneled into the ground and reach the ants with its sticky tongue. They also use their beaks to probe into softer surfaces like rotting logs and leaf piles to catch prey. In addition to ants, the birds eat ground beetles and grasshoppers.
The breeding territory for a pair of Northern Flickers is 150 acres or more, although they defend a smaller area. Northern Flickers mate for life, and each spring they return to the same location, often using the same tree to breed. When the male and female arrive at their breeding territory, they announce their arrival with their “ke-ke-ke-ke-ke” call and giving each other vigorous head bobs along with their “frozen” pose. They nest in dead wood stumps 10–30 feet high. Because they have weak bills, they require weathered, partially rotted dead trees in order to excavate a cavity. They often excavate cavities in the same tree year after year and sometimes reuse cavities, making minor modifications. Eggs are incubated by both the male and female, and the nest is never left unattended as they take one-hour shifts. A difference with this woodpecker is that rather than bringing live food to their nestlings, Northern Flickers feed their young through regurgitation.
In winter, Northern Flickers return to their winter feeding territories and rely on berries from poison ivy, Virginia creeper, dogwood, and sumac, as well as nuts. After nesting, their cavities are often used by Screech Owls, American Kestrels, Great Crested Flycatchers, and Flying Squirrels. Northern Flickers have been in serious decline since the 1960s. As with other woodpeckers, they require large, old dead trees; thus, efforts to clean up wood lots mean a loss of habitat and food source for this bird. Competition from starlings is also thought to be causing their decline as the woodpeckers are driven out of suitable habitats by these birds.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is our most migratory woodpecker, and breeding and winter ranges do not overlap. Their breeding range is a narrow band of forest in some northern parts of the U.S. but primarily through Canada. They breed from May through June, and the young fledge in July. Throughout the summer, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers eat huge numbers of insects, including caterpillars, ants, craneflies, mayflies, beetles, yellow jackets, and hornets. Families stay together throughout the summer and then migrate southward. Virginia is its most northern range during the winter, as they span from here down through Panama and Bermuda.
During winter, they drill sap wells in living trees to get nutrients. The sap wells are first drilled in a primary horizontal row that sometimes goes all the way around the tree. If sap flows from the wells, the bird may drill more holes above the primary band, creating vertical columns of wells. They lap the sap as it flows out. It was once thought that these holes killed the trees, and foresters waged a tough fight with the birds. However, through research it was shown that the birds prefer trees that are already damaged, placing their sap wells near the scars where sap accumulates. It was shown that sapsuckers kill very few trees and prefer trees that are already fungus infected or otherwise diseased. The end of these trees already in decline was recognized as a cheap price to pay for the numerous insects the birds consume as well as the benefit the sap wells provide to the numerous other animals that also use them: 35 species of birds in addition to bats, Mourning Cloak butterfly, bumblebees, and wasps. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird in particular relies almost entirely on sapsucker wells in springtime as they make their journey northward.
Things you can do for woodpeckers:
- Stock your bird feeders: Attract woodpeckers to your yard and enjoy watching their behavior by putting out suet, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
- Let dead trees stand: Dead trees are critical to the lives of our woodpeckers, both as sources of food and as nesting sites for raising young and later roosting.
- Leave the leaf piles: Leaves are an important place for insects to hibernate through winter and can be a great place for woodpeckers like the Northern Flicker to forage.
- Plant some berry trees and vines: While poison ivy may not be on the top of your list, you can plant Virginia creeper, dogwood, and sumac. In many places around Loudoun County these grow naturally, so if you have a “volunteer” that shows up in your yard, you can simply let it grow.
A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol I, II and III, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, 1989.
Lives of North American Birds, by Kenn Kaufman, 1996.
America’s Favorite Backyard Birds, George and Kit Harrison, 1989.
Woodpeckers of North America, Frances Backhouse, 2005.