Observations on a Woodpecker

What needs to be done next?

What is the woodpecker on the right doing? It’s excavating a hole in a pine tree. At the moment the photo was taken it was looking inside the hole to see how the work was going, perhaps assessing what needs to be done next, or both.

There were already four holes in this tree when work began, all above the hole currently being excavated. They, the other holes, looked to be unusable due to decay. In fact, the tree broke off at a point some three or four feet above the current excavation due to the action of this or other woodpeckers and the decaying of the wood, apparently helped along by wood boring beetles and their larvae. In an attempt to get at the beetle larvae within, the woodpeckers nearly cut through the tree, weakening the tree trunk and speeding up the decaying process. The top part of the tree now lies on the ground.

Excavating a hole requires going inside the hole.

It’s a dangerous business, carving a hole in a tree. Half of the time your head is inside the tree making it difficult to watch for predators or other woodpecker intruders.

Woodpeckers take very careful consideration of what’s going on both inside and outside of their works in progress. They are ever vigilant while they work; peck, inspect, look to the left, and look to the right. It could cost them their lives if they weren’t.

This particular woodpecker was paying very little attention to me as I stood and watched it work. It was certainly aware of me but probably considered me a minimal threat. All of its focus was on the work at hand and any real threats that could potentially be approaching from the rear.

Look to the left, look to the right.

Why excavate a hole in winter? Besides using holes for nesting, woodpeckers also use them for winter roosts. They spend the night tucked away from the wind, rain, sleet and snow. They are out of the weather for the night. I assume the other cavities in this pine tree were also used as roosts. Besides a bluebird inspecting one of the holes last spring I never saw woodpecker activity at the holes during daylight hours. If woodpeckers had nested in this tree I would have seen the adults coming and going. The tree is only a dozen feet from the path and clearly visible.

Downy Woodpecker (about 6″ – 7″). Note the relatively small bill and black spots on white tail feathers.

What kind of woodpecker is this? It’s a Downy Woodpecker. Of the seven species of woodpecker in our area there’s one other similar but less common woodpecker that’s sometimes confused with the downy, the Hairy Woodpecker.

Hairys are larger than downys. Despite the fact that hairys are, from top of head to tip of tail, 2 – 3 inches larger, the difference is not always obvious when either is seen alone. One thing that is obvious is the difference in the size of their bills.

The downy’s bill is small, the hairy’s large. Logical, given the overall size difference in the birds. But it’s the proportionate size difference in the bill that’s important here. The downy’s bill is smaller in proportion to its head. You might even call it tiny. Hairy woodpeckers have a bill that seems perhaps a bit too large for its head. Once you know the difference in the bill sizes, telling the two birds apart shoud present little problem.

Another, less obvious, difference is the tail. Both woodpeckers have white outer tail feathers. Downys have black spots on the white tail feathers. Hairys do not have black spots on the white tail feathers.

The bird pictured is a male. Females lack the red patch of feathers on the head.

Sleep tight, woodpecker.

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