(This Buffalo News column was first published on January 15, 1996.)
No winter hike is complete without sight of a dark bird suddenly plunging earthward from a high tree limb only to swing up at the last minute to alight against a nearby trunk. There it twists its head to call out a sharp note before returning its attention to its almost constant probing of bark for insects.
What we are seeing, most likely, is a downy or a hairy woodpecker. They are the commonest members of the family Picadae found in this area. Although several woodpecker species are permanent residents here, they are more noticeable in winter when they are easier to pick out among the bare branches.
What all our woodpeckers share is that upright posture on tree trunks, claws grasping bark and stiff tails providing additional support. (Only the easily distinguishable brown creeper also has these characteristics.) Woodpeckers use their heads as hammers and their bills as chisels to chip away wood and get at boring insects. They also often drum, striking a resonating surface rapidly to add a rolling sound. Apparently they do this simply to call attention to themselves, but their paradiddle on a metal roof or gutter can be very noisy and irritating. I heard one recently drum on a stop sign, and the alarm clock sound made me appreciate the complaints about woodpeckers that I occasionally receive.
This week I will briefly describe the nine woodpecker species that occur in this region and next week I will turn to their remarkable adaptations. The species are ordered from common to rare.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are very similar. Their backs and heads are black flecked with white. Their breasts and bellies are white and there is a white line down the middle of their backs, yet their appearance is largely dark. Males have a small red spot on the back of the head that misleads some observers to identify them as red-headed woodpeckers. Females lack this spot.
Despite their many features in common, it is not difficult to tell them apart. The downy, our smallest woodpecker, is only slightly larger than a sparrow, the hairy half again as large. And the hairyıs bill is proportionally much larger, almost as long as the rest of its head.
The Northern flicker is our only brown woodpecker. Most migrate but each winter a few tough it out here. Larger than jays, they have very distinctive markings, among them a black mustache and in flight a white rump patch. In summer they are often seen on the ground eating ants.
Red-bellied woodpeckers have extended their southern range and many now even winter here. The name is misleading as only malesı bellies show a pinkish cast. They appear to me like gray flickers with soft red cowls over the backs of their heads.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are beautifully patterned birds, but they are often mistaken for downy or hairy woodpeckers. Sapsucker foreheads are red, but an easier field mark is the large white bar on their wings.
No one could mistake the pileated woodpecker, crow-sized, mostly black, and with that Woody Woodpecker red crest. Nor is the red-headed woodpecker difficult to identify with its completely red head. The pileated is resident here; almost all red-heads migrate.
Rarest are the three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers. Both lack the fourth toe of their cousins. The size of a hairy woodpecker but darker appearing, the males show yellow caps. They are quiet, very tame, and often peeling bark to get at borers. If you come across either of these casual winter visitors from boreal bogs, contact local birders. Youıll find this information much appreciated.