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It’s in your nature: Knowing the local woodpeckers

If you are feeding your winter birds as I by including suet blocks or beef suet, you’re certainly attracting some woodpeckers. We are fortunate in the Times News area to find seven different species of woodpeckers. Of the seven, six of them can be found here in the winter months.

Two species in particular are probably making regular visits to your feeder, and of course, to entertain you. Those are the downy woodpecker and the red-bellied woodpecker.

“Downies” are the smallest of the woodpeckers with a white belly and black wing feathers flecked with white. They are only about ¾-inch larger than the pesty house finches.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are newcomers to this region.

Back in about 1960 when I started with my birding hobby, there were no red-bellied woodpeckers here. They were a common southern species. But probably due to increased bird feeder use by many households and of course, our warming climate, they now live and breed here. They have moved into New York state and farther north too. The name is not very fitting. Unless seen in perfect lighting conditions it is almost impossible to see the pinkish tinge on part of their belly. They are often confused with a red-headed woodpecker whose head is indeed very red.

Depending on your location, you could possibly see a pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, or rarely, the rather reclusive hairy woodpecker at your feeding stations. The latter seldom strays from the “deeper” woodlands. The sixth woodpecker that can overwinter here is the northern flicker, but nearly all migrate farther south to Delaware, Maryland or Virginia. I’m pleasantly surprised to see the population of “pileateds” increasing and I’m attributing that to the forest trees increasing in size with less logging occurring.

Worth noting is that of the woodpecker species, the flicker from late March through November, spends most of its time feeding on the ground eating their favorite food, ants. Pileated woodpeckers also spend a great deal of time close to the ground often hammering away at fallen and rotting tree trunks trying to find carpenter ants and grubs. As I’m typing this column, I’ve been enjoying two downy woodpeckers jockeying for position at the suet blocks hanging on our porch railing. So, grab your binoculars, put out some suet, and enjoy the woodpeckers in your backyard and the other birds as well. Better still, just get out there.

See additional photos on page A2.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True/False. Woodpeckers have a nictitating membrane (third eyelid) to help keep wood chips from damaging their eyes.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A young fox can be correctly called a kit, pup or cub. Although, pup is the term most often used.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

The red-headed woodpecker is indeed “red headed.” It also shows distinct edges to the black and bright areas on wings, etc. It is the only woodpecker not found in this area in winter.
The red-bellied woodpecker, a year-round resident here, does have red on its head, but the red tinge on its belly feathers is negligible. It does love suet. Compare this to the red-headed woodpecker photo on Page 2.
Also an occasional visitor to your winter suet is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. It does feed primarily on sap as the name implies. Note, it doesn't have a particularly yellow belly either. PHOTOS BY BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
If you have an older apple tree close by, or a Bradford pear, look for the telltale small “drill holes” in their trunks. These orderly holes are made by the sapsucker which later flies back to eat the sugary sap. Surprisingly they also like the sap of hickory trees, even poking through the tree's flaky, thick bark.
A female pileated woodpecker, our largest woodpecker species, perches near its nest cavity. Occasionally they will find your feeders. Their populations are increasing, a good sign.
Jack Huber from Jim Thorpe directed me recently to a nesting pair of “pileateds.” A female nestling begs for food above its male counterpart. PHOTOS BY BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Pileated woodpeckers are terrific chiselers. I'm amazed to the lengths they will hammer away to reach carpenter ants we never would have known were feeding in a conifer trunk. The pile of wood chips beneath the holes was impressive.
The downy woodpecker is the smallest but most common year-round woodpecker resident. They will use your suet blocks and also look for them “tagging along” with a feeding flock of chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice in our winter woods.
The final woodpecker sometimes seen here in winter, is the northern flicker. Feeding on ants, in particular, sends most of them a few hundred miles to the south for the winter.
The hairy woodpecker is maybe the most reclusive of our species. It looks very similar to the downy woodpecker. Note the longer, heavier bill, its call is different, and it is 2 to 2 1/2 inches larger than the downy. I seldom see them get “courageous enough” to hit my feeders
Don't ever forget the vital importance for all these woodpeckers. Birds such as this great-crested flycatcher, shown here, and chickadees, titmice, screech owls, and even mammals like flying squirrels rely on using the abandoned nest cavities made by the woodpeckers.