Woodpeckers share distinctive qualities. Among their traits are a chisel-like bill; a long, probing tongue to extract insects from wood or soil; the arrangement of their trunk-grasping toes; the stiff tail feathers that brace them; and the cushioned cranium that protects the brain when pounding wood.
Last month we reviewed Vermont’s most familiar species: Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-belled Sapsucker. Here are four more in Vermont.
NEW MESSENGER OF CLIMATE CHANGE: The Red-bellied Woodpecker
This handsome woodpecker has been familiar in the Southeast for millennia. But over the past few decades, the Red-bellies have spread northward to the Great Lakes, the mellow southern Hudson and Connecticut River Valleys, and the lowlands of the Champlain Valley. The Red-bellied Woodpecker loudly announces its presence with a romantic vocal variety, translated by ornithologists as “Kwirr” or “Churr,” “Cha,” “Cha-ah-ah,” ”Chee-wuck,” and “Grr” – all to strengthen its relationships! I’m going to try Chee-wuck!
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are non-migratory, so they depend upon a warming climate in New England, appreciate winter bird feeders, and find food in our variety of healthy forests with insects and other arthropods, hard mast in acorns and beechnuts, and soft mast in fruits such as wild grapes and winterberries. They are true generalists, but they do behave like woodpeckers, chiseling live and dead trees, especially hardwoods, to find foods and to excavate roost and nest sites. Their numerous cavities often become sites for other birds and small, arboreal mammals.
The expansion of this species in Vermont has been documented in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont and by avid birders. I first heard reports of Red-bellies in southern Vermont 30 years ago; viewed several of them in Addison County 20 years ago; received reports from the Upper Valley for 20 years; listened to one “churr” in Derby 10 years ago; and, recently, I watched one that visited feeders from Groton to Danville.
Loud, boisterous, and handsome, with a Zebra-striped back and tail, a pale pink patch on the belly, and a red crown (male) or nape (female), this woodpecker is a notable addition to our avian diversity.
WOODY WOODPECKER LIVING LARGE: The Pileated Woodpecker
This largest woodpecker in the U.S. bears a scarlet crest and a large, powerful bill for opening the treasures found in large trees. In flight, they flash white wing patches in an otherwise coal-black body. Vermont’s population of Pileated Woodpeckers has fluctuated over decades as changing land use and commercial forestry affect the mature coniferous and deciduous forests they depend upon. They seek healthy stands, snags on forest margins and riverbanks, and dead trees and decaying logs harboring insect colonies. When Vermont farmland returned to forest, these woodpeckers benefitted. But when heavy forest harvests occur, their numbers may decline.
When opening tree trunks to feed on wood-boring beetle larvae and carpenter ants, a Pileated Woodpecker leaves a telltale carpet of woodchips. While feeding, their excavations make large oblong or oval cavities that are worked over until the cavity may exceed four feet long. Their nesting cavities have circular entrances with a deep nesting chamber inside. These cavities may be used several years in a row for nesting or roosting. The deep, resonant thumping of the Pileated chiseling and drumming may be heard a quarter-mile away, and, like the cartoon voice of Woody Woodpecker, the Pileated’s calls are loud, repetitive, and often delivered in flight.
The grand nonmigratory Pileated Woodpecker contributes to its forest habitat by decomposing dead and infested trees and providing many cavities for species from Barred Owls to Raccoons. Woodpeckers, in general, are accused of killing trees, but it is their prey – the wood-boring beetles and carpenter ants - that do the most damage. A stroll in the woods will reveal this in the low, rotting trunks of spruces and firs, opened and shredded by Pileated Woodpeckers. If you have your own woods, save some large, decaying trees for Woody Woodpecker!
A CONTRARY CHARACTER: Black-backed Woodpecker
Ramble into a scrappy stand of boreal black spruce. You’ll note some trees prospering, some standing dead, some blackened by fire, some standing in swamp water, some felled by blowdowns, some with bark scaling off. Not a welcoming forest? It is to a Black-backed Woodpecker. Pockets of this habitat host this species in the northern reaches of the Kingdom. The Black-back is one of four boreal forest birds found in Victory Basin, Wenlock Wildlife Management Area, and the Nulhegan Basin of the Conte Refuge. These locales also host Boreal Chickadees, Canada Jays, and Spruce Grouse, all more common in the boreal forests of Canada.
Fortunately, though scarce to find, the Black-backed Woodpecker, about the size of a Robin, is readily approachable. Unlike other American woodpeckers, the male bears a yellow crown not red. Its dull black back offers camouflage on burned or damaged tree trunks. Other field marks are black-and-white cheeks, dull-white breast, and black-and-white banded wing feathers.
These chiselers create round cavity entrances with a slight bevel. Flaked off bark above and below the cavity is an indicator of their presence. You’ll know an active nest cavity if you see male and female exchanging places in and out. They also exchange a variety of calls, including one that ornithologists have dubbed the “Scream-Rattle-Snarl” call, not as terrifying as it sounds.
Extreme winter temperatures may drive some individuals southbound, an irruption not a true migration. Otherwise, these hardy birds breed in June and July, molt in August and September, and the rest of the year defend their territory, excavate new cavities, and feed on wood-boring beetle larvae in black spruce stands, burned or not.
RAREST OF THEM ALL: American Three-toed Woodpecker
A smallish woodpecker, closely related to the Black-back and found in boreal forest habitats, the Three-toed feeds lower in the old-growth spruces and specializes on bark beetles rather than wood-boring beetles. Busily, it flakes off bark scales to retrieve its prey in dense forest.
Vermont is on the southern margin of this species’ range and perhaps it’s Vermont’s hardest bird species to find. Unlike the Black-back, the Three-toed shows barred black-and-white on flanks, rump, back, and tail. The male has a small yellow cap.
On a winter day in Moose Bog, three of us were scouting for the big four boreal species. Surprise! There was a very close foraging Three-toed Woodpecker, the only one I’ve ever encountered. And in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont, only one was found, in Essex County.
EXTRA! EXTRA! VERMONT’S DASHING CHISELER VANISHES!
While most of Vermont’s woodpeckers are benefitting from the transition of farmlands to forests, birders have watched the steep decline of Red-headed Woodpeckers over the past century. This striking bird’s habitat includes farmlands with edges of hardwood trees. In open country, flycatching nourishes them; in woods, they seek beechnuts and acorns. Suitable habitat for them remains in the Champlain Valley, but Red-headed Woodpeckers were not detected in the Vermont Second Atlas. This decline has been documented throughout the northeastern U.S. So if you spot a flashy black-and-white bird with a full redhead, neck, throat, and upper breast, let the NEK Audubon authorities know! We miss our dashing chiseler!