When a Woodpecker Proves You Wrong

Why was the woodpecker pounding such a puny branch?

The Hairy Woodpecker could only be seeking food. The branch was too tiny to surround a roost cavity.

I could see why a woodpecker might choose this red oak to forage. It has several branch stubs: jagged wounds where fungi can enter. Many wood-boring insects prefer laying eggs on decayed and damaged trees. The hatchling larvae can easily chew their way inside, where depending on species, they may overwinter.

But this particular branch? It’s so skinny—maybe four inches in diameter—it must have been frozen to its core in yesterday’s 14-degree weather. Wouldn’t an insect mom want an egg-laying site with more mass? A trunk or a thick limb that would retain warmth to help her babies survive a Michigan winter. I was sure the woodpecker wouldn’t find food in this branch.

He pounded and chiseled. It took him just six minutes to prove me wrong.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

The Balcony

I just love rotting trees.

They’re wildlife magnets. I’m particularly fond of one such tree just outside my window. It has held my attention since 2015 when Pileated Woodpeckers nested there.

But the snag’s rotten story began about a decade earlier when we had a limb removed.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

What’s with that Feather?

I thought a feather was stuck in the flicker’s bill.

He wiped it on the rim of a tree cavity. But the feather didn’t budge. Over and again, this juvenile Northern Flicker swiped and wiped his bill.

Finally, he managed to drop the feather… only to repeat the process with another!

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Fumble and Search

Score!

The young woodpecker made a proud show of his loot.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are well equipped to forage. Their bills are built to chisel, hammer, and drill. They have long, sticky tongues with barbed tips—perfect for reaching into crevices and pulling out prey.

These birds are omnivores, happy to eat seeds, nuts, fruit, and meat. They’re both aggressive and tenacious. A few months ago, I filmed a Red-bellied Woodpecker pounding the life out of a bat before flying it away for consumption. At feeders, these woodpeckers will swipe peanuts from under squirrels’ noses. And when they find a hard-shelled seed or nut, they know exactly what to do: Wedge it into a tree crevice and hammer. They’ll catch the pieces with a cupped wing or trap them in belly and breast feathers pressed into the tree.

So, when the immature woodpecker leaned into a crevice with a nut in his bill, I expected to see a speedy pound-and-swallow maneuver.

Instead, I saw a fumble.

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An Avian Friendversary

Five years ago, Pileated Woodpeckers friended me.

Okay… strictly speaking, it’s been a one-way friendship: Me admiring some magnificent birds.

It began in April 2015. I was home every day, all day, recovering from surgery. I felt confined, not unlike today’s stay-put virus isolation. My sanity-saver was our expanse of sliding glass doors. They overlook a steep, wooded bluff that brings some trees’ crowns near eye-level, just yards away.

When I first noticed two woodpeckers pounding persistently, I assumed they were foraging. The tree they were pecking wore fungus on its trunk. There had to be insects under the bark.

A week later, I realized my error.

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A Bit of Bird-Watching Humility

What a racket!

It sounded like a squeaky-door orchestra playing in double-time staccato. I looked out the window, expecting to see a flock of agitated birds. But there were only two, and they seemed to be squabbling. One stood on our long-dead snag, the other on a nearby tree. They launched verbal tirades at each other, as though trading insults.

I did not recognize these birds.

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Red-Bellied Ptooey!

Ptooey!

I wonder. Does the standard onomatopoeia for ‘spitting’ apply to woodpeckers?

Ptooey is a brilliant onomatopoetic expression, but I’ve never had my ear quite close enough to hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker spit.

I need to take a photography class, so I can show you the look of concentration on the bird’s face the instant he spews the chips. That class is on my to-do list. But the good news is, you can see the bird’s determined demeanor on video if you keep scrolling.

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Life in a Snaggy Wood

Snaggy—that’s a technical term I just made up to describe our wooded backyard.

Our little forest has a lovely sprinkling of snags, the forestry term for standing dead and dying trees. I became a snag advocate (a snagvocate?) soon after moving into our home in the woods. In defense of the dead tree, I’ve convinced Bert that we should remove dead wood only as needed to keep our view of the lake below, and to protect the house from hazard in a storm. Otherwise, we leave the dead trees alone.

And oh, the rewards for benign neglect!
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Drum Beat of the Northern Flicker

We hear a lot of woodpecker drumming in our woods, and it’s not always clear who is doing the percussion work. But when I hear a deep, resonant drumroll, I immediately look to what I’ve come to call the timpani tree. It’s a magnet for northern flickers. Or, perhaps this instrument serves the same flicker over and again. My reading tells me that flickers are territorial, and they may drum to send a warning to interlopers.

For at least three years, flicker drumming has led me to this tree. Well, ‘tree’ may be a bit of a misstatement, because it’s really a remnant of a long-dead tree; one of the many snags that grace our property.

This snag is well suited to its percussive task. You don’t have to look very closely to see that it’s hollow, and the tree wall is quite thin. The result is a particularly resonant sound under the staccato strike of the flicker’s bill.

Speaking of staccato strikes, there’s something peculiar about the flickers’ drum beats on this tree.

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Father’s Day in the Forest

Some of the neighborhood birds are pretty impressive fathers.

Some of our neighborhood creature-dads play an important role in child-rearing. Others, not so much. It’s Father’s Day, so I thought I would pay tribute to the feathered fathers whose parenting roles I’ve been privileged to observe.

Which treetop dads help out with the parenting? And which forest fellows leave the child-rearing to mom?

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