Search Nature Watch

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Descent of Woodpeckers

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, male
Known for creeping up tree trunks and drilling into wood to nest and find food, woodpeckers are arboreal birds having a vertical posture, rounded wings, a chisel-shaped bill, short legs with strong claws, and stiff tail feathers.  These features enable them to climb, prey on insects, and feed on nuts and fruits.

A woodpecker uses its tail for support as it moves up a tree trunk.  Stiff, pointed tail feathers reinforced with longitudinal ridges also have small barbs that curve inward towards the tree, allowing the bird to use its tail as a brace.  Its feet are ‘zygodactyl’, meaning two toes facing forward and two toes facing backward, which helps support it when clinging to vertical surfaces. While all woodpecker bills are chisel-shaped, differences in curvature are based on the hardness of the species of wood it excavates as well as the hammering force it uses.  Tongues are also specialized in that they are barbed, sticky, and extremely long for the bird’s head, which reduces the amount of excavation required for foraging.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, female
One of the most common and noticeable species of woodpecker in our area is the Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris), which has a black and white barred back, spotted sides, and a face marked with black lines.  The males also sport an extensive reddish crown, while the female’s crown is black.  While it can nest in several types of trees, it most often nests in tall cactus in the western part of the state, giving it the old name of ‘cactus woodpecker.’  Ladder-backed woodpeckers feed on beetle larvae from small trees, but will also eat prickly pear cactus fruits (tunas) and forage on the ground for insects.  When gleaning for insects in trees, the larger male probes and pecks on trunks and larger limbs with his stouter bill, while the female more often concentrates on gleaning bark surfaces on higher branches and outer twigs.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, female
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) also has a black and white barred back, but a creamy white to pale yellow breast, a golden orange nape, and a small red cap on the male. A bird found west of the Balcones Escarpment, in flight they show white wing patches, a white rump, and a black tail, often calling as the glide from tree to tree.  They feed on insects, nuts (especially pecans), berries, acorns, and a wide variety of other food items, and only sometimes cache food in bark crevices.  

Downy Woodpecker, female
East of the Balcones Escarpment, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) has black upperparts checked with white on the wings, a boldly striped head, and a broad white stripe down the center of its back.  Its straight, chisel-like bill tends to look smaller than other woodpeckers its size, and the males have a small red patch at the back of the head.  In winter, Downy Woodpeckers are often members of mixed species flocks, allowing them to spend less time watching out for predators and better luck finding sources of food.  

The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Merlanerpes carolinus) has a patterned black and white barred back, barred central tail feathers, and a namesake small reddish patch or tinge on the belly that is often hard to spot.  The males have a solid red crown and nape, while the females only have a red nape.  Common in open woodlands, suburban areas, and parks, these woodpeckers are often seen hitching along branches and tree trunks, sometimes wedging large nuts into bark crevices and whacking them into manageable pieces using their pointed beaks.  

All woodpecker species use simple calls and drumming against tree trunks to communicate.  While the drumming is not a sure-fire way to identify a particular species, it can help you locate an individual bird, and maybe even a flock or descent of woodpeckers!