Last week I talked about the four most common species of woodpeckers in New Brunswick, this week I’ll finish the other five that for most of us aren’t as common.
Although the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breeds extensively in New Brunswick, it’s not reported all that frequently. I see the odd one around the yard, sipping sap from a small hole it drilled in my maple, I hear them more often now that I’ve learned their drum; unlike our other woodpeckers it stalls part way through and picks up again at the end. Reports do spike in breeding season when they find a resonant spot on your eave, stove pipe or metal ladder. They’re early risers and if one is drumming on your windowsill at the crack of dawn, it’s hard not to notice.
They don’t frequent feeders either but every now and then one will discover the sweet offerings we put out for hummingbirds or orioles. If you do get one hanging off a small hummingbird feeder you may want to get the larger version meant for orioles so less gets spilled while he’s feeding. Don’t forget to try some grape jelly either, the sweeter the better. They sometimes visit the suet feeders, but I wouldn’t run out and buy some just for sapsuckers, in 20 years I’ve only seen 2 on my suet feeders.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is considered a keystone species, that is they are vital for the maintenance of a community. There are 35 species of birds that benefit from the sap and the insects that are attracted to the sap wells. It’s not coincidence that the our sapsucker arrives a couple weeks before the our hummingbirds, they have some time to set up house keeping, get some trees tapped and the sap running in time for the hummers arrival. Researchers have noted hummingbirds chasing off other larger species, they don’t however, chase away the sapsucker, so the relationship may be mutually beneficial. Although the hummingbird eats a lot compared to it’s body weight (The heaviest hummer weighs less than one loonie and lightest less than a penny or it would take 14 small hummingbirds to equal one Downy Woodpecker), it’s very little compared to the amount of sap a larger species would rob.
I hear suggestions to get your hummingbird feeders out early in the spring so the first arriving birds will have something to eat, and while I’m all for it, the truth is these birds have been arriving before most New Brunswick flowers bloom long, long before anyone ever thought about the small red nectar feeders.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is our most migratory woodpecker, the only one who doesn’t even appear on the NB winter list (going back to 1996) and that makes sense, there’s not much sap running here in January.
The Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker are the only North American land birds with only three toes, the true rear toe is missing and the outer front toe that faces backwards in all woodpeckers is the only rear toe on these two species. (In the other woodpeckers it’s usually two forward and two backwards, but the outer rear toe can rotate to the side as the bird climbs, the inner hind toe is often hidden by the leg, so if you only see three toes it doesn’t necessarily mean it a three toed woodpecker.)
Although not commonly reported this woodpecker of the boreal forest can be found across New Brunswick, (I saw my first in Moncton city limits). Look for it anywhere there are dead or dying conifers as it feeds by flaking off the bark eventually removing all the bark from a snag. One of the favourite foods is the larvae of the white-spotted sawyer beetle, this insect can detect the light given off by a forest fire and moves in shortly after to deposit eggs in the dying trees, this in turn draws the woodpeckers. One reference states a Black-backed eats more than 13,500 larvae annually, that’s 40 of these fat juicy grubs daily.
The Black-backed is mid sized, with an all black back, the primary flight feathers are spotted white, the sides are barred black and white, white belly and yellow cap on males.
The Three-toed Woodpecker is less common than the other three toed woodpecker, he has similar feeding habits but will more readily feed on the sapsucker wells. Slightly smaller, it has white bars on the back, more barring on the sides, white speckles on the head and the males also have a yellow cap.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is one of those species that was named when the ornithologists shot first and made identifications later. Dead, on it’s back, the red on the belly is visible; alive and on a tree trunk it’s not so noticeable. Every few years this woodpecker will move into our area for the winter, like the other woodpeckers that come to feeders they enjoy the suet, but this one will take sunflower more readily and truly loves peanuts in the shell. When they are around I have a spike in peanut in the shell feeders and I always say, this feeder won’t magically attract a Red-bellied to your yard, but if you get one, it’ll be going to this feeder.
One winter we had one who made it his mission to fill a hollowed out apple tree with sunflower seeds. He made constant trips from the feeder to the tree to drop the seed in and seemingly listen for it to hit bottom, perhaps judging his progress. Unfortunately for him, a red squirrel was making it his mission to remove the seeds as fast as they were being cached.
This guy stayed all winter into spring and even started his mating call and drum, but after having no success on the girl front, he moved on. There were several females in New Brunswick that winter, but I didn’t hear of any of them hooking up.
While a lot of woodpeckers have red on their heads, there is only one Red-headed Woodpecker. They are entirely red from the shoulders up to the beak, the black is all black and the white is all white, making this one striking individual. Now considered our most rare woodpecker, (by me at least, as I still don’t have it on my New Brunswick list), it used to breed here.
The same winter we hosted the Red-bellied there was one down the road in Riverside-Albert, I didn’t bother to go see it, we had one on PEI when I was younger and thought if I’d already seen it, then it mustn’t be very rare. I should have gone, as the sightings are getting fewer and farther away.