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Woodpeckers Of The Southeastern United States

Georgann Schmalz
Birding Adventures,Inc.

Rat-a-tat,rat-a-tat.  “What is that lousy bird doing up there?”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. “It`s six o`clock in the morning, for crying out loud!”

It happens everyl ate winter and spring and the calls start coming in.  “What do I do about the woodpecker drumming on my gutters?” or “How do I keep the (expletive deleted) woodpeckers from destroying my house?”

Both are fair, sensible questions, but with unsatisfactory answers and solutions.

Drumming on gutters is a territorial behavior performed mostly by male woodpeckers.  It serves the same purpose that singing does for male songbirds.  In late winter and spring, territories are decided and
maintained by male participants using gutters to resoundingly announce their dominion and vigor,
sending their drumming far into the air waves.  It`s testosterone at its finest moment and there`s really not a whole lot that can be done about it except waiting for him to become more occupied with his family.

Drumming on wood surfaces, on the other hand, is usually done in search of food. Cedar siding and
wood trim are favorite places for carpenter bees, beetles, and other wood boring insects.  Woodpeckers
have learned that cedar siding and window or door frames are plentiful places to find these insects and their larvae .  Woodpeckers area ctually doing us a favor by removing these critters from the wood, but it`s a favor that`s hard to appreciate when it appears that the house is being destroyed.

Actually, the house is being destroyed either way; the insects are much moresubtle.  Very little is effective in divert a woodpeckers`s attention from the wood trim or siding of a house.  Nearly everything imaginable has been tried, usuallyt o no avail; slimy rubber snakes, scary plastic owls, glittering aluminum strips, smelly moth balls, pictures of hawks , or just standing there and waving your arms.  Eventually, most woodpeckers simply move on to your neighbor’s house, leaving you with some homework.

Who`s to blame for all this damage to eardrums and wood?  There are seven common species of woodpeckers that live in the southeastern United States including Georgia and the Atlanta area.  The most common resident woodpeckers are Downy, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Northern Flicker.  Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers are not quite as commonin the metropolitan area.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly common winter residents.  Any of these birds can, theoretically, drum on a house, but the most inclined culprits are Red-bellied, Downy woodpeckers and Northern Flickers.

Woodpeckers are placed, phylogenetically, in their own order, Piciformes.  Most of them have adapted their lifestyles to tree trunks and branches. Generally, they cling to trees using well-hooked claws arranged on short zygodactyl feet, two toes pointing forwards and two toes pointing backwards.  Their stout tails end in stiff barbs which solidly brace the bird as it hitches up the tree trunk. Using their chisel-like bills, woodpeckers excavate nesting cavities in trees which, when vacated, serve as cavities for songbirds, screech owls, tree frogs, flying squirrels, and other animals.

That same beak can peck away, probe, or drill into the bark of tree trunks, branches,twigs, fallen logs, and cedar siding.  The shock of pounding into wood all dayis absorbed by a thick-walled skull, a narrow space between the tough outer membrane of the brain and the brain itself, and the strong muscles of skull and bill.

Their long tongues are sticky and barb-like and can easily reach into holes and tunnels, searching snakelike
for a tasty insect.  The hyoid bone of the skull helps to support the tongue which, when retracted, curves
around the back of the skull and attaches to the base of the nostrils.

In addition to their characteristic pecking and drumming, woodpeckers can be easily recognized by their overall black and white color pattern, infrequently interrupted by splashes of bright red.  Red-headed Woodpeckers have the most red feathers which entirely cover their heads, while Northern Flickers are mostly brown with only a small sliver of red on their nape.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers seem to be misnamed until examined in hand, and, even then, only the male shows a suggestion of a red belly.  Neither female Downy nor Hairy woodpeckers display red feathers.  Female Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have gray foreheads unlike the red forehead oft he males.
These are noisy woodpeckers, easily identified by their repeated soft, scolding,”chrrrr, chrrrr”.
Red-bellies` drumming is similar to that of the red-headeds`, but often interrupted with the distinctive, “chrrrr”s.

Not an especially shy bird, Red-bellies frequent urban yards and gardens with sunflower seed or suet feeders.  They also eat insects, wild fruits, nuts, berries, and acorns.  Like the Red-headed, Red-bellies will store nuts and seeds in bark crevices for the winter.

Four to five white eggs are laid in a cavity as high as 120 feet above the ground in tree trunks.  Lower nests
are excavated in fence posts, telephone poles, and tree stumps. Unusual for woodpeckers, Red-bellies have
been known to use an individual cavity in succeeding nesting seasons or another woodpecker’s cavity.

Both sexes incubate the eggs for 12 – 14 days.  The fledglings, without thebright red napes, are fed for a few weeks away from the cavity, butwhile clinging onto tree trunks, begging for food.  They often follow their parents to bird feeders, watching and learning how to effectively extract sunflower seeds.

The smallest woodpecker in North America is the six inch Downy Woodpecker
Male Downies are easily distinguished from females by the red patch on the back of thei rheads.  Through careful observation, individual birds can be told apart by their black and white facial patterns.  Downies closely resemble Hairy Woodpeckers but can be distinguished by smaller size, smaller bill (see below), softer calls, and black spots on the outer tail feathers.

The call of this woodpecker is a downward whinny of successive notes which helps to remembert he name of the bird; a downward spiral for downy woodpecker. They also have a soft “pik” note.  The Downy`s drumming is a steady staccatoof even-paced bursts, often 12 – 15 per minute, trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Before nesting, male and female Downy Woodpeckers have little to do with each other, preferring the company of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and Blue Jays.  Once spring arrives and hormones begin to flow, the male begins to court his prospective mate.  The dedicated pair travels closely together inspecting various trees for a suitable nesting site.  They may begin to excavate one or two cavities until a final one is chosen where she will lay 4 – 5 white eggs.  Incubation is about 12 days after which both parents feed hundreds of insects to their hungry family for 25 days.  Fledglings look similar to their parents, but slightly whiter breasted and fuzzier vent feathers.  Interestingly, a fledgling male has a pale red patch on the crown of his head.