When a birder comes by and asks what birds I have around today, I run through the list of what I can remember seeing recently and I usually say, “...and both woodpeckers.” I hear others saying that too, we’re referring to the common feeder visitors, the Downy and Hairy but we really should be more specific. Did you know there are nine species of woodpeckers quite possible in New Brunswick?
Undoubtedly the Downy Woodpecker the most familiar, the friendly little bird frequents feeders and often stays put at the feeder while you approach very close. On several occasions I’ve been startled when I picked up a feeder not noticing one on the opposite side. It’s our smallest woodpecker, weighing about the same as three loonies, so theoretically my wife could have ten of them in the bottom of her purse at any time and not notice. Very similar to the Hairy in appearance, they have black backs checked with white, black and white striped heads and the outer tail feathers are white, on the Downy they typically have black spots, but the easiest way to tell them apart is the bill length when compared to the head. The bill of a Downy is about half the depth of the head while the Hairy’s is about equal. So if you’re taking pictures and want to be able to differentiate, try to get a full on side shot, sometimes when they are looking directly into the camera they’re harder to tell apart and if they are looking on an angle a Hairy may even look like a Downy. The males of both species have a bright red patch on the backs of their heads.
The Hairy is quite bit larger, it can weigh up to 13 loonies, (so my wife would notice ten of these in her purse), they are dominant at feeders but in nature the two feed on different parts of the tree, the Downy’s smaller size allowing it access, even feeding on weed stems and the Hairy’s heavier bill allows him to dig a little deeper.
My next most common woodpecker is all the way to the other end of the scale, I see the Pileated almost every day. They are in my area and make their presence known with their call, drum or noisy foraging that sounds very much like a carvers mallet and chisel. Our only crested woodpecker, they resemble Woody, except where he’s blue they’re black. The gentlemen have a red mustache while the ladies sport black ones.
I’ve never had one on feeders, (some people have) but I see them routinely on my dead trees and fruit, it’s favourite seems to be alternate leaf dogwood, wild cherry and grapes. He can be quite the acrobat, hanging vicariously off small suet cages, grape vines and saplings. I’ve seen them bend a cherry sapling horizontal, (they weigh 50 loonies or 17 Downy Woodpeckers) hang upside-down and strip the fruit. Even the way they take the fruit in their beak and toss it back into their mouth is interesting to watch.
The Pileated will nest in urban areas if there are large enough trees to excavate a nest, there are nests on the Crawley Farm Road, right in Moncton and several others are reported foraging on dead trees in the city.
For three seasons the Northern Flicker is plentiful, this one migrates in winter, but spring and fall they pass through in large numbers. In mid to late April you’ll see them on bare areas, in ditches and cleaning up any fruit that may be left on trees. During breeding season they’re very conspicuous, although not showing up at feeders very often, you’ll see them eating fruit and picking up ants on the lawn, which by the way, ranks as the number one ID question I get asked… “I have a bird that looks like a woodpecker, but he’s hopping around on the lawn---tan bird, black spots, red on back of head and black bib” or something like that (males have a mustache). They’re larger than the Hairy, about the size of a Mourning Dove, (they weigh 23 loonies).
If you don’t see flickers very often, try to learn their call, it’s similar to the Pileated but higher and longer, they’ll get on top of a light pole and call all day when they’re trying to define their territory.
I’ll finish up our other five woodpecker species next week.