The lowdown on North Shore woodpeckers

Black-backed Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpecker

Woodpeckers_041311.mp314.39 MB

Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.

Anderson: Hi!

Well, there are a lot of different woodpeckers out there. Which ones do we have here and what are they doing this time of year?

Anderson: Yeah, we do. We have a nice array of woodpeckers that are regular here, regularly here, and also a few that are more infrequent, occasional visitors. So, let’s go through the common ones. We’ll kind of go from largest to smallest, and beginning with, of course, the pileated, and this is the largest of our local woodpeckers. 16 to almost 20 inches long, so you really can’t mistake it for any other bird. You know, maybe if you need an analogy, the size of a crow. It’s a big bird, not hard to see; very boisterous, not shy about announcing its presence. They’re black, basically black with a very prominent red crest on both the males and females, but only half of it is red on the females. The males have a red mustache that kind of sweeps back from the base of their bills, and the females have a mustache also—it’s more of a line, but you could call it a mustache—but it’s black. The hairy woodpecker is the next. The hairy woodpeckers are 8.5 to 10 inches long. They are black and white with an all-white back, and with white outer tail feathers. The males have a red patch on their heads. Females do not. They are obviously smaller than the pileated. The next smallest is the black-backed woodpecker, which is very similar in size to the hairy and is all black, and the males have a yellow patch on the back of their heads. Black-back woodpeckers are not as common as the pileated, the hairy and the downy, which we’ll talk about next, but they can pretty consistently be found if you really go looking inland in our densely coniferous forests, so forests of jack pine and black spruce. So, they are here, they’re here pretty much all of the time, their numbers kind of ebb and flow with conditions in the forest, but they’re definitely here.

Would we see them at birdfeeders?

Anderson: You know, we had one come to suet once in the winter at our birdfeeder, but it’s very unlikely. So, then the next woodpecker on our regular woodpecker list is the downy woodpecker, and they’re the smallest woodpecker in North America, and 6 to 7 inches long. So, this is a bird that would easily fit in your hand. And, they look very similar, other than size, to the hairy. So, they’re black and white, the males with the red patch, the females without, a white back, but the downies have a much tinier bill and they also have black spots or bars on their otherwise white tail feathers.

Yeah, they’re real common. We see those all winter long, and all year long, really.

Anderson: Yeah, they’re definitely regular companions, you know, at the feeders. If you’re out in the woods, they’re a very likely species to hear and encounter. So, the other woodpeckers that are more intermittent, or less likely to see every year, are the American three-toed, which, like the black-backed, is different from the others in that it only has three toes instead of four. This also has been called the ladder-backed woodpecker. So, it’s basically black, but it has black and white barring on the back instead of the back being black. And then people also have observed here the red-bellied woodpecker and red-headed woodpeckers. So, those are the woodpeckers that I’m aware of that people have definitely seen within our area.

Are woodpeckers related to flickers?

Anderson: Yes, but woodpeckers that we’re talking about are the species within that larger family group of woodpeckers that excavate their own cavities for nesting. So, that leads us to: what are they doing now? Good segway. To start out with, each species that we’ve been talking about has a very unique and distinctive drumming pattern that it uses to communicate within a large area, among all the woodpeckers, but also between pairs of woodpeckers. They use that drumbeat primarily to establish where their territories are and let everybody know. So, this is something that is going on right now. All of the woodpeckers are involved in this, because this is the time when they begin to form their pair bonds or reestablish them, if they’ve been hanging around kind of loosely together over the course of the year. Many of these pairs utilize the same territories more than one year, and so that drumming can be a drumming back and forth answering call-and-response between a pair, members of a pair on their territory, or it can also be between neighboring birds to just, you know, make sure we all understand where we’re meant to be. So, as I said, these are all cavity nesters, and they make their cavities primarily in dead trees or the dead branches of trees. So, here’s a really excellent example of why dead things, dead trees, are a really valuable part of the whole ecosystem of our forest to these critters that need them for their nesting habitat. And new cavities are excavated every year by the pair. So, at this time of year, the bonds are kind of being reformed, they’re going around their territory, the pair together, and separately, and looking for good potential locations. They may each individually start one, but the key to successful breeding is for them to agree and commit to that site and begin to join together in excavation, even if one of them ultimately does most of the work. And so, they’re going to start making their entrance hole and work their way in, and once they get the interior cavity deep enough, then they’re going to inside and work from the outside. So, if you happen to locate one of these excavations going on, it’s really fun to watch that process and then eventually see them throwing things, you know, wood bits and what not out the door.

I have a pileated that likes the electric light pole next door, and boy, does that carry.

Anderson: Oh, I bet. Yeah, well what could be more satisfying, you know?

I’m sure he’s not trying to build a nest in that. And then there are the hairies that work on the cedar shake shingles on my old shed.

Anderson: Not your favorite.

Well, they’re not hurting anything. But, then I’ve got one that’s working around my windowsill.

Anderson: Sometimes, I’m not saying your place does, but sometimes it’s an indication that there’s some kind of insect activity.

Oh, there probably is. Cluster flies. We’ll talk about cluster flies some other time.

Anderson: OK!

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks, Chel, for helping us understand woodpeckers.

Anderson: You’re so welcome.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Northeast Region via Flickr.

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