A pileated woodpecker’s diet often shifts with the seasons. One study found that the primary food of these woodpeckers was fruit in fall, carpenter ants in winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in summer. During the winter, with the help of its impressive beak, the woodpecker pries off long slivers of wood from trees containing carpenter ants and exposes the ant galleries. It then uses its long, pointed, barbed tongue and its sticky saliva to catch and extract ants from the ant tunnels inside the tree. This winter diet can be confirmed by examining the contents of a pileated woodpecker’s droppings. Finding these droppings is simply a matter of locating a tree that has a considerable pile of wood chips at the base, indicating that a pileated woodpecker has spent a lot of time working on the tree – long enough to have deposited droppings in and amongst the chips. The droppings crumble easily and reveal a multitude of tiny, black, shiny carpenter ant body parts. (The whitewashed end is due to uric acid.)
Non-vocal communication between birds of the same species has become apparent in the last week or so — downy woodpeckers have started to hammer out bursts of steady staccato drum beats on nearby trees. Both male and female woodpeckers drum year round, but they do so most intensively from January to May, especially during the courtship and early nesting season which begin in March. Woodpeckers drum for a variety of reasons: defending territory, attracting a mate, maintaining contact with a mate, signaling readiness for copulation and summoning a mate from a distance. Woodpecker pairs do engage in duet drumming , which is thought to play a role in nest site selection and in promoting and maintaining the bond between mates.
The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands. Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code. These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops. They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better. Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive. Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate. Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.
When I think of red-bellied woodpeckers, I think of the south, where their “churr-churr” call is relatively constant, and has been for many years. Over the past 100 years, like the cardinal, titmouse and mockingbird, this woodpecker has extended its breeding range northward. By the mid-90’s red-bellied woodpeckers had reached northern New England; 2001 marked the …first recorded breeding of red-bellied woodpeckers in Vermont (Brattleboro). While the origin of their common name appears fairly elusive, they do, in fact, have a blush of red on their bellies, if inspected at very close range. The red-bellied woodpecker is often mistaken for the red-headed woodpecker, for obvious reasons – they both have red heads. However, the back of the red-headed woodpecker is mostly black (red-bellied backs are black and white barred), and there is a large white patch on each wing of the red-headed. You must look closely at the red feathers of red-bellied woodpeckers to distinguish males from females. The male’s red feathers extend from the back of its neck (nape), cap and forehead down to the base of its bill. The female has red feathers on her nape and at the base of her bill, but not on her cap or forehead. Even though they’ve been around for the past decade, it is still a thrill to see this handsome bird. (Photograph is of a female red-bellied woodpecker sighted in Hartland, Vermont yesterday.)