An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Woodpeckers

Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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Hairy and Downy Woodpecker Bills

12-31-13 woodpecker billsDistinguishing Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) from their smaller relatives, Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), can be challenging if you don’t have a chance to view both species at the same time. The easiest way to tell them apart is to note the relative size of their bills. The Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is proportionately much larger than the Downy Woodpecker’s – it’s almost as long as its head — whereas the Downy Woodpecker’s bill is not nearly as impressive. Although a Downy Woodpecker can’t drill or probe as deeply into trees as a Hairy Woodpecker, it does have at least one advantage due to its overall smaller size; it is light enough to balance on the stems of goldenrods, which usually aren’t strong enough to support Hairy Woodpeckers. It is here that Downy Woodpeckers drill for overwintering goldenrod fly larvae inside goldenrod ball galls – a popular winter snack for this species.

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Pileated Woodpecker Sign

12-26-13 pileated sign2 IMG_8246Pileated Woodpeckers typically make rectangular holes in trees in order to reach the carpenter ants that live in galleries they’ve created deep within a tree. While ants are high on a Pileated Woodpecker’s list of preferred food, wood-boring beetle larvae are not far behind. Sometimes the exertion of jackhammering isn’t necessary in order to reach insect larvae – removal of the outer bark is enough to expose tasty morsels.

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Do Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Really Suck Sap?

9-12-13  yellow-bellied sapsucker tongue IMG_9715My apologies for not posting yesterday — two days without electricity or telephone!

A tell-tale sign of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker activity is the presence of rows of 1/4–inch holes, often drilled in Sugar Maples and birch trees in order to gain access to their nutritious phloem sap. Once the sap begins to flow, sapsuckers insert their tongues into these holes. Here is where their name is misleading, as sapsuckers don’t actually suck the sap, they lap it up with the aid of tiny hair-like projections on the edge of their tongue, which hold the sap by capillary action (see insert). Each flick of the tongue brings more sap into the woodpecker’s mouth.
Because sap is so essential to a tree, wounds are quickly healed over to prevent loss of sap. Scientists still have not figured out how sapsuckers overcome a tree’s defenses and maintain a continuous flow of sap. One theory is that sapsucker saliva may contain a substance that acts as an anticoagulant, preventing sap from clogging up and sealing over the holes the bird creates.

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Hairy Woodpeckers Raising Young

6-3-13 hairy woodpecker looking right 330The chipping of hungry Hairy Woodpecker nestlings can easily be detected by human ears, even though it comes from deep within a tree cavity. One is reminded of how beneficial this species is when observing the steady delivery of food by these woodpeckers to their young. More than 75% of an adult Hairy Woodpecker’s diet consists of injurious insects, while the amount of useful insects and cultivated fruits that they destroy is insignificant. Beetle larvae (mostly wood-boring) make up 30% of the insects that are consumed, with ants ranking second, at 17%. Caterpillars, such as those pictured, comprise about 10% of an adult Hairy Woodpecker’s diet, but given this parent’s beakful, one wonders if the percentage is greater for nestlings.


Goldenrod Ball Gall Fly Larva

3-22-13 goldenrod ball gall fly larva IMG_6182The round “ball” that is often present on the stem of goldenrod plants contains the overwintering larva of a fly (Eurosta solidaginis). A year ago an adult female fly laid an egg in the stem of the goldenrod plant. The egg hatched and the larva proceeded to eat the interior of the stem. As it did so, the larva excreted chemicals which caused the plant to grow abnormally, creating a ball-shaped “gall.” If you were to open a goldenrod ball gall today, you would probably find an overwintering larva (if a downy woodpecker or parasitic wasp hadn’t gotten there before you). Within the next few weeks the larva will pupate, and as early as April the adult fly will emerge from the gall, having crawled out the passageway that it chewed last fall. An inflatable “balloon” on its forehead allows the fly to burst through the remaining outermost layer of tissue at the end of the passageway. The adult fly lives about two weeks, just long enough to mate and begin the process all over again.


Pileated Woodpecker Winter Droppings Reveal Diet

2-12-13 pileated woodpecker droppings IMG_2108A 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.)


Downy Woodpeckers Drumming

1-24-13 downy woodpecker3 IMG_7588Non-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.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Drum Roll

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.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

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.)


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