Pileated Woodpecker Wednesday!

Today is our last Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I can’t believe winter is officially only one week away! A weekly dedication to woodpeckers was really enjoyable for me to write, but I’m also looking forward to the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Speaking of waterfowl, on Sunday Dave and I added 4 species of waterfowl to our life list at Long Beach Island. I can’t wait to tell you all about it (post will be coming soon about that).

On November 14, 2015 I achieved one of my birding dreams: to see a Pileated Woodpecker. (It was one of my best birding moments so far, and you can read about it here at Pileated Dreams). My fascination with Pileated Woodpeckers started long before I ever saw one, and has only increased over time as I eagerly await the moment I find another one. Here are some interesting facts about this awe-inspiring bird.

  • The Pileated Woodpecker is the 6th largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest in North America. It’s about the size of a crow, but despite being so big it’s more often heard than seen.
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Pileated in Flight (Image by NatureMan via birdsandblooms)
  • Like the Northern Flicker, Pileateds primarily eat ants. Their diet also consists of a variety of insects, nuts, and fruit. They occasionally eat at suet feeders. (Quick side note: if you watch Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Feeder Cam, you can sometimes see a Pileated show up at their suet feeder. It’s quite a sight!)
  • They are known for making large, rectangular cavities in dead trees. Pileateds depend on a variety of habitats, but mostly mature deciduous or coniferous forests. Cavities can be deep and up to a foot long. They use the tunnels within the cavity of catch beetle larvae with their long tongues. To hammer, Pileateds pull their necks back far from the tree and pull on the trunk with their feet to make a heavy blow.
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Pileated cavity at Rancocas Nature Center, NJ (Image by BirdNation)
  • Pileateds are pretty distinctive, so they are not usually confused with other species. Sometimes they are confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are larger than Pileateds, and although also jet black, have large white wing patches on the outer wing. Pileateds have large white patches under their wings. The both have bright red crests, but the Pileated has malar stripes. It’s unknown if the Ivory-billed is extinct at the moment, so it’s more than likely that you’re seeing a Pileated.
  • How can you tell the difference between a male and female? The male’s red crest extends down to his upper mandible, while the female’s forehead is a dusky grayish-brown. The male’s malar stripes are red and the female’s stripes are black.
  • They hold large territories; spanning as far as one mile or more for a single pair. Pairs are usually monogamous and mate for life. They defend their territory throughout the year. Defense strategies include raising their crest, drumming, calling, and displaying the white patch under their wings.
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A mated pair (male left, female right) Image by By AndrewBrownsword – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4348147

I hope you enjoyed Woodpecker Wednesday! What’s your favorite North American woodpecker? Tell me about it in the comments! The Pileated is mine (obviously! :-P)

 

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Mystery of the Red Feathers

Hi friends! Sorry I disappeared for a bit. Being a second-time college student and full-time music teacher, I am currently in the midst of finals and concert season, so it’s been pretty hectic around here. I’m hoping to be back to writing more frequently in the next few days.

Instead of doing the normal Woodpecker Wednesday profile post, I wanted to share an interesting woodpecker study. There was a woodpecker mystery that was recently solved by scientists. The mystery: red feathers in Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. The answer was not what scientists were expecting.

The Northern Flicker is the most abundant woodpecker in North America. Although pretty common, they are probably the most unusual of woodpeckers. They mainly feed on the ground on ants, are weak tree excavators, and even roost in trees less than other woodpeckers. Another unique feature is their intricate plumage, which is brown and tan or light peach, with black belly spots and a “zebra-back”.

When John Jame Audubon first saw Northern Flickers in 1843 at Yellowstone, Wyoming he was puzzled. He saw five Northern Flickers that all varied dramatically in plumage color. Some were red, some were yellow, and other were in between. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was in what is now considered “the hybrid zone”.

There are two subspecies of Northern Flickers: the “Red-shafted” Flicker of the west and the “Yellow-shafted” Flicker of the East. They frequently hybridize in the Great Plains region of the United States, south to Texas and north to Canada. This hybrid zone is at least 4,000 years old. Unless you live in the hybrid zone, you are most likely to see either one subspecies or the other.

Over a century later, scientist were puzzled one again about Flicker plumage. Starting the the 1960s, some biologists began to notice that there were Flickers over a 1,000 miles east of the hybrid zone with red feathers. But there weren’t quite as bright as the western “red-shafted” plumage, they were more of a copper color. Some ornithologists speculated that the color was being cause by genes from the red-shafted being spread to the yellow-shafted population. Something wasn’t quite right with that explanation though, so studies continued.

But now the mystery is solved! A recent study published on October 12, 2016 in The Auk revealed what was causing the color change. And it turns out hybridization has nothing to do with it.

The answer: honeysuckle berries.

Red-shafted Flickers have red feathers because of 4-keto-carotenoids, a type of pigment. The “red” Yellow-shafted Flickers get their color from a pigment called rhodoxanthin. Rhodoxanthin is rare in the wild and only found in certain plants. By eating berries from honeysuckle plants, particularly the Morrow’s, Tartarin, and their hybrid Bell’s honeysuckles, they are ingesting this pigment. These “red-yellow” Flickers are eating this food source around when they molt and acquire new plumage.

So why did it take scientist so long to solve this mystery? The Northern Flicker’s diet consists heavily of ants and other insects. Since berries is a smaller portion of their diet, the pigment they are eating is usually not as obvious, so it took scientists a longer time to notice.

Although this mystery is solved for the moment, there are so many other ornithological enigmas to the study (how about the mystery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?). But that’s the great thing about ornithology and other biological sciences: there are so many fascinating and exciting discoveries just waiting to be found.

If you want to read the actual study you can read it here:

The Auk Ornithological Advances

What kind of Northern Flickers do you see? Tell me about them in the comments.

 

 

 

Red-headed Woodpecker Wednesday

We only have 3 more weeks of our autumn feature, Woodpecker Wednesday. On December 21 (the Winter Solstice), Waterfowl Wednesday will return! Today’s featured woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Descriptions:

The plumage of the Red-headed Woodpecker is bold and striking. Their bellies are white, and their wings are half-black, half-white. Their round heads are bright red. There are only four sexually monochromatic woodpeckers in the world and the Red-headed Woodpecker is one of them. This means it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between a male and female visually in the field.  Immature Red-heads actually lack the red head. Their heads are gray-brown, and the white patch on their wings have rows of black spots.

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Red-headed Woodpecker (Image by Classic Collection of North American Birds via birds-ofn-north-america.net)

Range:

Year-round from Rocky Mountain States east to the Atlantic Coast and south to Texas and Florida. Summer (breeding): from Eastern Montana to New York. Some populations winter in mid-Texas.

Habitat:

Deciduous woodlands, open forests, groves, orchards, farm country

Diet:

Considered the most omnivorous North American woodpecker. Eats nuts, insects, seeds, fruit. Sometimes they raid nests and eat eggs/nestlings. May occasionally eat mice and other adult birds. Like the Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-heads are proficient at flycatching.

Like some other woodpeckers, Red-heads store nuts and seeds in crevices of trees. However, they are the only North American woodpecker that is known to use bark and wood as a protective covering to hide their caches.

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Foraging for acorns (Image by Jim Williams via Minnesota Star Tribune)

Breeding/Nesting:

They are monogamous, usually for several years. Males will do most of the excavating on a dead tree, and if the female approves the site she will tap with him. Red-heads may have 1-2 broods per year, with usually 4-5 eggs per clutch. Both parents will incubate the eggs for 12-13 days and the young will fledge about 27-31 days after hatching. The pair may start a second brood in the same nest, but usually a separate nest while still feeding the first brood.

Sounds:

rheer, rheer squeal; racka racka chatter used for communcation between mates, a short descending rattle as a defense call. Groups call while flycatching.

Conservation:

Populations have fluctuated dramatically over the past 200 years, and have declined in the Northeast in recent years. Population loss is likely through to lack of old-growth forests and acorn crop fluctuations. The are considered Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Fun Facts:

  • Red-heads are very pugnacious, and will be aggressive towards a variety of other birds, even the large Pileated Woodpecker 
  • Their closets relatives are the Acorn and Lewis’s Woodpecker. They are all members of the genus Melanerpes. 
  • They will store live grasshopper into tree crevices that are so tight the grasshopper can’t escape.
  • Sometimes Red-heads may drop nuts or pine cones on roads to be crushed by cars. Unfortunately, this leads to a relatively high rate of roadkill mortality.
  • Due to the striking contrast of their plumage, they are sometimes known as “the flying checkerboard”.

American Three-toed Woodpecker Wednesday

Today’s featured woodpecker is the American Three-toed Woodpecker.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)

Description:

American Three-toed Woodpeckers are black and white, “pied” face, and about 8 inches in length. Their plumage is more black than white. These woodpeckers are one of the two North American woodpeckers that are tridactyl, meaning they have three toes instead of four like other species (you can learn more about the different kind of bird feet here). The male’s crown is yellow and the female’s crown is all black. Adult Three-toed have a thin white eye stripe that curves downwards behind their ear. They appear to have a short bill due to elongated nasal tufts.

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Male American Three-toed Woodpecker (Image by Kendall Brown via utahbirds.org)

Range:

found year-round in boreal forests from western Alaska through Canada east to Newfoundland; Rocky and Cascade Mountains in the western United States

Habitat:

Coniferous forests; especially in burned, flooded or insect-infested forests. Associated with lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and spruce trees.

Diet:

Three-toed tend to live in areas where there are spruce bark beetles infestations, which are a large part of their diet. Other food sources include a variety of beetles, ants, arthropods, may occasionally consume sap or fruit. Forages on tree trunks will remove bark from trees to find insects.

Breeding/Nesting:

Not much is known about breeding habits. Three-toed excavate nest cavities in usually dead coniferous trees. Both sexes will work together to excavate a new cavity each year. They are monogamous during breeding season, and may possibly stay together for more than one season. Three-toed usually lay 4 eggs which are incubated for 12-14 days by both sexes. The young will fledge 22-26 days after hatching and will remain with their parents for 4-8 weeks afterwards.

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Female American Three-toed Woodpecker (Image by Discovery Planet at discoveryplanet.com.au)

Sounds:

pik!, similar to a Downy Woodpecker  , one of the least vocal North American woodpeckers. Also makes rattle and twitter sounds, and can be easily identified by its drum.

Conservation:

Local populations vary; may be more abundant after fires and insect-infestations. They are generally uncommon and may be more sensitive to timber harvesting. They are considered a conservation priority throughout their range.

Fun Facts: 

  • Three-toed breed the furthest north of any North American woodpecker species.
  • They are one of the most difficult woodpeckers to spot in the field and are highly sought by birders to add to their life lists. They are usually overlooked because their black plumage helps them blend in well with the charred trees they sit on. They may sit still on a trunk for long periods of time, making them easy to miss. The best time to spot them is during peak breeding season, when they are the most vocal.
  • In 2003, the “Three-toed Woodpecker” was split into two separate species: the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. Even though they look similar, the difference occurs in their mitochondrial DNA.

 

 

Mystery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

It was April 1944. Don Eckelberry,who worked for Audubon, went to Singer Tract in Madison Parrish, Louisiana on a mission. His goal was to spot a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A few months prior, this bird was seen by Richard Pough, who later became the first president of the Nature Conservancy. Singer Tract was a large stretch of primeval southern forest that was owned by the Singer Sewing Company. The logging rights to this forest were sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The National Audubon Society tried to buy the land from Chicago Mill but were unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers need large sections of forest to thrive. And Singer Tract happened to be where a few of these woodpeckers were living at the time. Tragically, the forest at Singer Tract was eventually logged.

But in April 1944, Don Eckelberry did find his female Ivory-billed in Singer Tract. She was alone in an uncut area of the forest. Eckelberry wrote in a letter to John Baker, “It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest.” Eckelberry’s observation in April 1944 was the last universally accepted sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

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A photograph of Singer Tract from 1937 (Image via fws.gov/ivorybill)

And so the mystery began. Does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exist, or is it extinct? It’s been a topic of much debate and study over the years. There have been sightings reported, but nothing is confirmed and the evidence is almost non-existent.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is considered the third largest woodpecker in the world, at 20 inches in length and a 30 inch wingspan.  It’s body is black with large white patches on its wings/neck, and a bright red crest. Historically, this species was found in the Southeastern United States from Texas east to North Carolina, north up to lower Ohio, and south to Cuba. The Cuban Ivory-billed is considered a subspecies and may also possibly be extinct. They lived in thick, uninterrupted hardwood forests and swamps that had a lot of dead and decaying trees.

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A male and female switching parenting duties (Image taken by Arthur A. Allen in April 1935, via wikipedia)

What cause the decline of this species? There are multiple factors, including hunting for sport, science, and used in Native American culture/trading. However, habitat destruction throughout the early 1900’s broke up the Ivory-billed’s territory, which prevented them from being able to sustain their populations. In 1939 it was estimated that only around 24 individuals lived in the United States. The number of birds alive today, if any,  is unknown.

Much of what we know comes from research in the mid-1930s. In 1935, Arthur Allen (founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Peter Paul Kellogg (Cornell professor), James Tanner (Cornell graduate student), George Miksch Sutton (a bird artist/ornithologist), and Jack Kuhk (a local game warden), set up camp in the swamps of Singer Tract to study the Ivory-billed. They did find a nest in a maple tree and studied it for a few weeks. They were able to capture audio and video recordings on this expedition. The recordings made by Kellogg in 1935 are still used today in recent searches.

James Tanner went back to Singer Tract between 1937 and 1939 as part of his dissertation. He was able to study these birds in-depth. In this trip he was able to observe a young woodpecker being raised by its parents for 16 days. Tanner banded this young bird, the only one of its species to ever be banded. He published The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1942, which featured his research and two pictures of Jack Kuhk with the chick perched on his arm and head. These were the only 2 pictures of an Ivory-billed juvenile, until a few more were discovered by Tanner’s wife Nancy in 2009.  Tanner traveled a total of 45,000 miles around the southeast, but only ever found the woodpeckers at Singer Tract. He died in 1991, believing that the bird was extinct.

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Jack Kuhk with the young Ivory-billed on his shoulder (Photograph taken by James Tanner in 1938, via smithsonianmag.com

There many still be hope though. Scientists are still looking, and there have been sightings in the past 20 years. The Cornell Lab searched for the woodpeckers in 2002 in Louisiana with no luck. In 2004 Gene Sparling, an Arkansas native, spotted one while kayaking in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. This sparked interested again, so Tim Gallagher (from the Cornell Lab) and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Alabama went down to “The Big Woods” in Arkansas to investigate. They sucessfully spotted one on that trip. Other employees and students of the Lab have made trips to Arkansas as well and may have seen the woodpeckers too. A search for the Cuban Ivory-billed took place in January 2016 by Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink, but they yielded no results.

So the question remains: does the Ivory-billed still exist? Studies are ongoing, and at the moment there is not enough data for scientists to agree on this predicament. Only time will tell if this elusive species will be resurrected from the dead once again. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a lesson in how human carelessness can cause destruction far beyond what we anticipate in our environment. From this experience we can learn just how important conservation is to all species. Hopefully this Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found again one day. In the meantime, it will remain a mystery.

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A male Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1935, taken by Arthur A. Allen

 

To learn more check out the following links:

The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba by Audubon

The Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A Close Encounter with the Rarest Bird by Stephen Lyn Bales for Smithsonian Magazine

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Wednesday

This week’s featured woodpecker is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It is one of North America’s four sapsucker species. This sapsucker is the most migratory woodpecker in the world.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Description:

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are small (7.5-9 inches) with straight bills and a pied facial pattern. Both sexes have a red forehead and white napes. Males have bright red throats, solid black malar (cheek) stripe, a black bib, and pale yellow was on the breast. Females have pale white throats, black malar stripes, and a black bib. Adults of both sexes have black and mottled white bodies with a solid white stripe down their folded wings. Juveniles are a dusky brown with a yellowish belly and gray heads. They also feature a white wing stripe.

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Adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Image by Dick Daniels/wikimedia commons, found via Boreal Songbird Initiative’s website)

Range:

Summer (breeding): as far North as eastern Alaska and across the boreal forests of Canada, parts of New England, and Adirondack Mountains. Migration: Midwest United States. Winter: Eastern and Southeastern United States, and goes as far south as Central America (down to Panama) and the Caribbean

Habitat:

deciduous forests, mixed coniferous woodlands, aspen groves, orchards

Diet:

tree sap, insects,  berries, and other fruits. True to their names, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill neatly organized sapwells in horizontal rows. The trees they choose to drill have a higher concentration of sugar in the sap, and are usually sick or wounded. Aspens, Paper birch, sugar maple, and hickory trees are a few of the tree species they drill. They drill throughout the year to keep the sap fresh on both their wintering and breeding grounds. Sometimes they will catch insects in mid-air after perching from a branch, similar to flycatchers.

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Sapwells (Image by Mike Lathroum via marylandbiodiversity.com)

Breeding/Nesting:

Males arrive at the breeding territory a week before females to scout out a drumming post. The female and male will scurry around the tree trunk together while tapping a potential excavation site. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are monogamous. Like other woodpeckers, these Sapsuckers are cavity nests. They usually use the same tree for up to 7 years, but will use a different cavity in that tree each year.

Females lay between 5-6 (sometimes 3-7) eggs per year and started incubating around the third or fourth. Males and females will share incubation duties for around 12-13 days. The young fledge 25-29 days after hatching. The parents will teach the young sapsucking skills for around 10 days after leaving the nest.

Sounds:

Quieter during the winter but pretty vocal during breeding. A repeated nasal mewing meehhr!, a quee-ah, queeah! scratchy call. Drumming is typically done by males.

Conservation:

In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers received a bad reputation for damaging and drilling in timber in the Eastern United States. Due to forest clear-cutting numbers declined, but recently have increased and are more widespread.  It’s estimated that there is a global population  10 million breeding pairs by the organization Partners in Flight. It’s possible that the population is higher than pre-settlement times. Although more common, they are still consider climate-threatened.

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Female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Image by Greg Lavaty via Seattle Audubon)

Fun Facts:

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of the three sapsuckers in the varius superspecies. The other two sapsuckers in varius are the Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers. These species have been known to hybridize in certain areas of the west. The fourth North American sapsucker, the Williamson’s, is more genetically different than the other sapsucker superspeices. Studies show they are the most ancestral of the four sapsuckers in the Sphyrapicus genus.
  • These sapsuckers make two different holes to access sap. Small round holes are made deep in the trunk, which are used to reach the sap. Rectangular holes that are shallower must be maintained to keep the sap flowing.
  • Hummingbirds are attracted to the sapwells that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have become so depend on these sapwells that they will time their spring migration to when the sapsuckers arrive.
  • The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the logo for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary is names for this species. It was in Sapsucker Woods that Arthur Allen (the Lab’s founder) and artist Lous Agassiz Fuertes discovered the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest in the Finger Lakes area of New York in 1909. Fuertes later named this spot Sapsucker Woods. (story found in the Lab’s publication Living Bird, winter 2015 edition)

 

World of Woodpeckers

Happy Woodpecker Wednesday! I thought I’d do something a little different for our feature this week. Instead of a species profile, today’s post is going to be facts about woodpeckers in general. I think as a bird blog, it’s important to do species profiles to educate others on specific birds (big groups like Audubon and Cornell Lab do “bird of the week” features too).

But every once in awhile, you just want to mix things up. And I’m in that kind of mood today. So here are 10 wonderful facts about woodpeckers.

  • There are between 180-200 woodpecker species found throughout the world. Some species are possibly extinct, but since these extinctions haven’t been confirmed, it’s hard for scientists to get a more exact count.
  • Woodpeckers can be found on almost every continent, except Australia and the extreme polar regions. They are also not present in Madagascar, New Zealand, and New Guinea. Most species live in woodland areas, but a few live in deserts and rocky hillsides.
  • Woodpeckers are part of the family Picidae, which is one of the eight families in the order Piciformes. There are four subspeices of the family Picaidae which include sapsuckers, wrynecks, and piculets.
  • The smallest woodpecker in the world is the Bar-breasted Piculet. Adults are around 3 inches (7.5 cm) and weight about 0.28 to 0.35 ounces (8 to 10 grams). They are found in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia.
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Bar-breasted Piculet (Image by Joao Quental via peruaves.org)
  • The largest woodpeckers in the world are the Ivory-billed (around 20 inches) and Imperial (between 23-25 inches). However, both may be extinct. The largest confirmed woodpecker is the Great Slaty Woodpecker, which is around 20 inches and live in Southeast Asia.
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Imperial Woodpecker specimens (Image by Fritz Geller-Grimm via wikimedia commons)
  • Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet. This means that they have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing the rear. Many birds, such as waders and passerines, have 3 forward and one facing backwards. Being zygodactl helps woodpeckers climb trees vertically and gives them exception grip since their talons are so long.
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Woodpecker Feet illustration (via Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta,GA)
  • How can woodpeckers drum on trees without hurting their heads? Their skulls are thick and have sponge-like bone in the front and rear of the cranium. This helps them protect the brain by spreading the impact force. The nictitating membrances (a.k.a “thrid eyelid”)close a millisecond before impact to protect their eyes. They also have special bristled feathers that cover their nostrils from flying debris.
  • A woodpecker can peck at an average of around 20 pecks per second. That’s around 8000-12,000 pecks per day!
  • Woodpeckers have long tongues, which vary in shape depending on a species diet. Woodpeckers have a  hyoid apparatus (a set of two narrow bones, muscle, and cartilage). The hyoid allows the tongue to extend to great lengths. It wraps around the base and over the top of the skull.
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Diagram of a woodpecker tongue (Illustration by Denise Takahashi via birdwatchingdaily.com)
  • The most common flight pattern for woodpeckers is 3 flaps and a glide.

 

What is your favorite species of woodpecker? Tell me in the comments below.