Woodpeckers and the displays of early spring

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—

Pileated Woodpecker

By late-winter, the days are noticeably longer and the warmth from the sun intensifies as it rises higher and higher in the sky. Routine winter walks whose main distractions had been animal tracks and “winter stroll silence” (aka wind) are suddenly interrupted with the sounds of avian life and activity. This is a time before the blackbirds, grackles, sparrows, woodcocks and other “early tweeter returners” have returned to turn up the volume as territories and pecking orders are established. No, those early warm(ish) days were for the woodpeckers and corvids (Raven, Crows and Blue Jays). And since I am not the biggest fan of corvids (just being honest here) this column will focus on the increased woodpecker activity as seasons transition from cold and into the somewhat warmishness.

There are six species of Picidae (the woodpecker family) that are regularly found in St. George each year. Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are typically three-season visitors, while Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been increasing in numbers over time but still unpredictable as to the “when, where, and how many.” The Downy, the Hairy and the Pileated Woodpecker species, however, are year-rounders on the St. George peninsula. These species spend the winter months banging their bills into frozen wood in search of nourishment. When those first warmish winter days start to roll around, these woodpeckers are already on their territories and start in almost immediately with displays of courtship and defense—the love and hate of breeding, if you will.

The first sign of changing woodpecker activity I heard this year was “drumming.” In the classic art of non-vocal communication, a drumming woodpecker finds a hollow branch or trunk that resonates and echoes loudly when rapidly pecked—loud enough to be heard from distances. A woodpecker will repeat short drumming bursts in an effort to announce a territory, attract a new mate, or to call a mate over. All woodpeckers drum, but the drumming from (the larger) Pileated Woodpeckers echoed all around the Tenants Harbor marsh–stating their presence with authority!

As winter slides into early spring, an eye kept on woodpeckers can lead to observing some great interactions and behaviors. While it may be their vocalizations that draws your attention, woodpecker battling is mostly done with chases and visual displays. The “bill-wave” is a somewhat comical display were two woodpeckers face each other on a branch and shake their heads repeatedly back and forth with a “oh no you don’t” kind of attitude. This display is usually performed between members of the same gender as woodpecker territories are defended by gender—males deal with male challengers and females with female challengers. A few other classic, non-vocal woodpecker displays are the “crest raise,” where a woodpecker raises its crest in excitement, be it territorial or courtship. Or the “V-wing,” where a perched bird raises its wings high above its back, spreads its tail and finishes the action with a lunge or attack at its rival. Finally, the “Still-pose” is where two woodpeckers stop all movement and remain perfectly still for up to 20 minutes. No fooling. Motionlessness is an actual battle strategy for woodpeckers and an easily observable one at that.

With its large size and loud presence, the Pileated Woodpecker is the most recognizable woodpecker on the peninsula. The rectangular cavities that Pileateds have excavated low on trees along the Nature Trail and Town Forest Loops are recognizable as well.

Downy Woodpecker. Note the black bars on the tailfeathers.

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, on the other hand, can be confusing to tell apart. There is a considerable size difference between the two species—Downies are 6.25 in., Hairies 9.25 in.—but size can be tricky to judge at times. Downy Woodpeckers usually have a much smaller bill when compared to Hairies, but there can be variation in Downy Woodpecker bill size and perspectives on size can be skewed. A clear view of a woodpecker’s white outer tail feathers, however, can be used to definitively identify a species. Downy woodpeckers have black barring, one to three black dots on their outer tail feathers. This can be especially helpful when the woodpecker is directly above you in a tree.

We look forward to seeing the migratory woodpeckers return and, of course, welcome the random, oddball Picidae that may turn up on the peninsula (there is always space for a Red-headed Woodpecker in my yard!). The Downy, the Hairy and the Pileated are special breeds, though. They are hardcores that live off the woods (and suet) all winter, have first dibs on the best cavity trees, and celebrate the warmth of a 20-degree day. Those are my kind of birds.
See you out there!
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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