Sunday Snapshots: Being Harried

Hairy Woodpecker - female

NB: I didn’t get a chance to post these on actual Sunday, as our internet service provider seemed to be suffering an outage. So they’re going up Monday, but I’ve backdated them to Sunday.

Here are another couple of species that have been frequenting our feeders, but that I didn’t have room to mention on Friday. Clearly, the female Hairy Woodpecker (above) rules the roost.

Hairy Woodpecker - female

Hairy Woodpecker - female

Hairy Woodpecker - female

Hairy Woodpecker - female


Fowl-weather restaurant

Hairy Woodpecker

I wouldn’t say that there had necessarily been a lull at the feeders, per se, during the warmer temperatures, but certainly activity was a bit decreased for those few days as birds found it easier to find their own food out in the woods. With the return of the snow yesterday, the feeders were back to normal, bustling with birds looking for easy food. Most of the birds blend in with one another, with no one individual really standing out. The species that we don’t get very many of, however, like the nuthatches, are more likely the same individual visiting frequently (in the case of the Red-breasted Nuthatches, we’re pretty sure there’s only two, and one has the black crown of the male, while the other is a female sporting her grayish crown, which makes it easy to tell them apart).

There are a couple of individuals that we banded a little earlier in the winter and who are continuing to come round to the feeders. One of them is this male Hairy Woodpecker. I haven’t noticed the banded female recently, but this male is a regular. Here he is proudly displaying his jewelry while he checks out the activity at the nyger feeders (he eventually left without trying the seed).

Feisty siskin

Another is this banded siskin, the only banded siskin that I’ve noticed still hanging around (though Dan indicated he thought there might be two). The others have most likely headed north already, given their fat levels when we caught them. Even the couple of banded redpolls I’d observed for the first little while after they were captured have now disappeared, leaving just this lonely individual still hanging out at the feeders. It can’t be that s/he’s having trouble finding enough food to put on the fat, because s/he dominates the feeders. Just as feisty as always, she (or he) reaches up to take a nip at an offending redpoll.

Redpoll party

It’s been hanging-room-only at the feeders the last couple days, as the snow arrived and birds started scrambling for food. They’ve been plowing through the seed, easily going through half a tube’s worth over the course of a frenzied day. I wonder just how much food each bird actually ingests during all this squabbling. Obviously some will get more than others, but it seems like half their time is spent shooing others away, rather than just sitting and eating.

Redpoll group

When not at the feeder, those birds that turn their beaks up at foraging on the ground will wait their turns on the surrounding branches. There’s easily just as many, or more, birds lined up along the twigs as there are on the feeder itself. I love the collection of little red caps and yellow beaks against the browns and grays of the winter landscape.

Keeping an eye out

At one point something went overhead and all the birds at the feeder went stock-still, except for their heads which they rotated sideways to point an eye up at the sky. I’m not sure what it was they spotted – it could have been a hawk, after all we had that Sharpie around a little while ago. It could have been a raven soaring over, looking hawk-like in profile as it cruised overhead; certainly we’ve had plenty of those about during the winter. Possibly a Red-tailed Hawk, moving low overhead. I’ve seen one or two around over the course of the winter, though it would be unlikely they’d come down to the feeders. If we were closer to a flight path I might suggest it could even have been an airplane, but we hardly ever see them through here, and when we do it’s pretty easy to hear the engines as they pass by.

Hoary Redpoll

Our male Hoary that we spotted earlier in the winter has apparently hung about, and was active at the feeders the last couple of days. Either that, or it’s a different individual. Either way, he was a nice addition to the feeder crowd. He stood out from the rest, even though he didn’t look quite as pale as the one from earlier. Redpolls only have a single moult to replace their feathers, in the fall, rather than the two that most songbirds have. They acheive their breeding plumage through the gradual wearing-off of the pale feather tips over the course of the winter, exposing the rosy underneath. This process would also expose the brown on his back, probably an advantage during the breeding season when white isn’t as common a colour in the landscape, and would result in him looking paler earlier in the winter than now.

Hoary Redpoll

His pure-white undertail coverts and thin, sparse flank streaking were give-aways, as was the stubby bill when he turned his head. The other thing that jumped out about this individual was his gorgeous rosy breast on a fluffy white background. When he perched on the branches away from the feeder, it was easy to spot him, he had considerably more pink to his chest than the Commons did.

There are two subspecies of Hoary Redpoll. The one that most people probably think of, the stereotyped pale Hoary, is C.h. hornemanni, which has very reduced pink to the breast. It breeds in the Northwest Territories and winters from Michigan to Maryland. The other subspecies, C.h. exilipes, is a little more common, breding from Alaska to Labrador, and wintering right across the continent from Oregon to Maryland.

This latter subspecies isn’t as pale as the first, and, according to the “bander’s bible” which gives the moult details for every age and sex of every species, in the adult male exilipes “the pink of the underparts [is] deep, usually covering most of the breast.” Interestingly, that contradicts his statement later on in the species account where he says the “breast and rump with a light to moderate pink wash”. I just read this latter statement at first and was thoroughly confused about what appeared to be a heavily-marked Hoary, until I read the subspecies description.

This may be my last redpoll post; they’ll be departing soon, headed back to the shrubby tundra lowlands across northern Canada. We can probably expect to enjoy another couple of weeks of them gobbling nyger seed before they’re gone – at least till next winter.

Today at Kingsford – New at the feeder

male Hairy Woodpecker and Blue Jay

I had grand plans for a long entry tonight, on one of three subjects I have percolating in the brewer. However, none of the three happened, for various reasons. One was that I decided, on a whim, to make chicken pot pie for dinner tonight. Of course, anything that requires a crust is a bit time-consuming, so that took up more time than planned, which then ran into the other little tasks. So a short one tonight.

This afternoon there was a lot of activity at the feeders and in the surrounding yard. We’ve had a few more birds coming to the feeders, new species for that list though we’ve seen them in the area. The first new species was Dark-eyed Junco, which was visiting some seed spilled on the driveway, but either hadn’t discovered, or preferred not to visit, the platform feeder. The second was a Downy Woodpecker that came and checked out the peanut feeder.

And the third one was this Hairy Woodpecker pair, a male and a female. Whether or not they were a bonded pair or it was just serendipitous that they were different sexes I don’t know. The female quickly discovered my suet feeder and would come back to that, but the male stuck to the platform feeder, perhaps not having noticed the suet yet. At the platform he had to contend with the Blue Jays, however. He’d duck down around the rim of the platform when the jays got pushy, which I caught in the above shot.

female Hairy Woodpecker

Before the female found the suet, I watched her climb up the wooden pole the platform is mounted on and then hang from its underside. The platform has holes drilled in it to allow moisture out, and she was reaching up through these holes to grab the seed. That’s one way to avoid the jays!

Hammerhead, harpoon-tongue

Hairy Woodpecker

We’ve had a Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) hanging around the house for the last week or two. For the most part it’s remained some distance away, up high or hidden by leaves, hard to observe but easy to detect through its tap-tap-tapping as it chips away bark looking for insects. Hairy Woodpeckers have always struck me as being less common than the smaller Downy Woodpeckers, as I find I don’t encounter them nearly as often when birding, and I’ve always found it a treat to have one hanging about.

The second edition of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario includes maps of abundance levels throughout the province for most species (anything that can be regularly detected on point counts), and it confirms this assessment. It indicates that the Downy is at its peak abundance, up to 7 birds per 25 point counts (the standard unit of measurement for the abundance maps) through most of the Carolinian forest region extending southwest from Toronto, and patchily throughout the rest of the province. The Hairy, meanwhile, is encountered at a rate of less than 1 bird per 25 point counts through the same region. Even in the areas where it reaches peak abundance, through the more rugged Canadian Shield, its abundance is still only a maximum of 3 birds per 25 point counts – less than half of what the Downy reaches in its peak zones.

Hairy Woodpecker

Here in the Frontenac Axis we’re right in one of those peak abundance zones for Hairys (it’s incidentally also a good spot for Downy and Pileated, likely simply due to all the deciduous and mixed forest around here). We hear the other guys around, but the only one to spend much time on our property has been the Hairy. Although the Hairy is noticeably larger than the Downy, without aid of a size reference, the best way to tell them apart is by the bill: a Hairy’s bill is about the same length as his head, while a Downy’s is only half the size of his head and has a rather petite look to it. Incidentally, although the two species look virtually identical, they’re not all that closely related. Their similar patterning is a wonderful example of convergent evolution – two species acheiving the same result by two separate, independent evolutionary paths.

Yesterday morning she was not far off from the deck, and she was unusually low. The sexes are told apart by red at the nape of the crown in males, while the back of the head on females is all black. This is true also for Downys, and virtually all other woodpecker species have some form of dimorphism between the sexes, although the particular feather region in question varies.

Hairy Woodpecker

I watched her hopping up the tree trunk. There are a few groups of trunk-foragers, which have all developed their own special niches. Woodpeckers are borers, in that they’ll drill holes or chip off bark to get at the bugs sequestered underneath. They hang upright off the side of the tree to do this, using their sharp little claws to grip the bark and their stiff tail feathers like a prop. Hopefully you’ll never have occassion to handle a wild bird, since that probably means it’s run into a window or some other human structure, but should you have the unfortunate (for the bird) opportunity to find and handle one, or happen to visit a banding operation where they catch a (live, healthy) woodpecker, take a moment to check out these specialized features. Of all the non-predatory birds I’ve handled, woodpeckers have by far the sharpest nails. In this photo she’s caught mid-hop, pushing off with her powerful feet and leaping vertically, then grabbing the trunk again with her feet.

The other two groups are nuthatches, which have the peculiar habit of descending down a tree head-first as they forage, and creepers, which go the other direction, up and upright. Both of these groups prod in the cracks of bark and under loose pieces, looking for insects that are hiding there. Their different foraging directions means they can exploit cracks that go unnoticed by the other group.

Hairy Woodpecker

You can just see her tongue between her two mandibles as she probes here for an insect. Woodpeckers have amazing adaptations to their foraging strategy. The first is the length of their tongue. The grubs they target make tunnels into the bark, which the birds chip or drill into the bark to expose. Once they’ve found a tunnel, the grub can sometimes be down the tunnel at the other end. The bird inserts its tongue, which it uses like a spear to snag the grub from the bottom of its burrow. The woodpecker’s tongue has a stiff cartilaginous tip, covered in sharp little barbs, perfect for pulling things back that are out of reach.

And the bird’s tongue is looong. The tongue is a cross between the muscular structure we humans have, and a rigid bony structure. It’s got a long, branching Y-shaped bone, called the hyoid, that splits at the back of the throat and wraps up behind the head, sometimes ending as far forward as the eye socket or nostril, where it’s secured by elastic tissue. There are muscles that are paired with the horns of the Y, affixed to the back of the jaw, and running to the tip of the hyoid bone. Contraction of these muscles pulls the tips of the hyoid bone around the back of the head and back down toward the mouth, and in doing so, pushes the tongue out the mouth. When the muscles relax, the elastic tissue returns the bone to its original position, and the tongue is pulled back in.

If you part a woodpecker’s feathers on the back of its head you can usually see the hyoid bones and muscles under the skin there. Humans have a hyoid apparatus, too, but ours is very much reduced and not used in the same way (ours is mostly support, and a base for some muscles). Because of the length of these hyoid bones wrapping around the back of its skull, a woodpecker is capable of extending its tongue twice the length of its head, useful when the prey is buried deep. Check out some of the photos that Hilton Pond Center has posted at this link – pretty amazing. The incredible structure and mechanism that operates the tongue (also described on Hilton Pond’s site) are sometimes used as an example against evolution, on the basis that such a wonderfully complex system couldn’t have evolved on its own. Really, though, it’s just a bigger, fancier version of the tongue structure found in chickens. A baby woodpecker starts out with hyoid horns that resemble a chicken’s, and they grow into woodpecker-length as the baby grows.

Hairy Woodpecker

The other adaptation a woodpecker has evolved has to do with the hammering. Can you just imagine the sort of headache you would have if you had to do this for your dinner every day? A woodpecker’s beak, when it’s hammering against a tree, is moving at about 7 meters per second – the equivalent of about 25 km/h or 15.6 mph – which would be sufficient to cause brain damage in humans when met with an abrupt stop (the force of which would be about 1000 times that of gravity). Most animals, ourselves included, have brains that sort of “float” in the brain cavity, surrounded by a thin layer of fluid and membranes, which allows the brain to keep moving and “crash” into the bone when the skull suddenly stops, causing bruising and brain damage. A woodpecker’s is tightly packed inside the skull by spongy bone that protects it, so it stops when the skull stops. This page notes a couple additional secondary adaptations that also help in reducing the impact of the impacts.

Hairy Woodpecker

But what about it’s beak? Here the bird is using it to chip away some loosened wood. The beak is used as a multitude of tools, including crowbar and chisel, but it’s mostly used as a drill (or hammer, depending on how you look at it). Surely the force of such constant and repeated impacts (up to 20 times per second) would weaken or shatter it. With a normal bird’s beak it probably would, but woodpeckers have special grooves that run at an angle to the direction of force, which strengthen the structure. It’s like trying to stand a piece of paper up on its thin side. Put a crease in it and it’s suddenly got much more strength and rigidity.

Hairy Woodpecker

I watched the Hairy work the trees for a bit. She was remarkably docile, and seemed unperturbed by my being there. I ran off well over 100 photos of her poking about the trees, but won’t share them all here. Here’s a few more from the collection, though.

Hairy Woodpecker

She stops for a quick preen. Here she’s reaching back to a little gland that’s at the base of the tail, on their top surface (at the bottom of their back), which has the fancy name of uropygial gland, but the more casual name of oil gland or preen gland. If you look at it up close (again on that unfortunate window-strike, or the luckier banding capture), it looks a bit like a wart, yellow and slightly greasy looking. It produces an oil that’s incredibly important to birds for waterproofing. When you see a bird running its beak through its feathers it’s doing one of two things. If it’s simply working the feathers then it’s reorganizing all the barbs and smoothing them out so they create a flat surface (ruffled barbs disrupt aerodynamics and mean the bird burns more energy when flying; also they can allow more heat/temperature loss). However, if it’s reaching around to its tail regularly, it’s squeezing the gland to produce oil that it then works through the feathers for waterproofing.

Hairy Woodpecker

She showed interest in this cavity. I thought it was a little late for her to still be nesting, but not impossible, and it would explain why she’d been hanging around the area so closely.

Hairy Woodpecker

She paused and looked around, then looked inside again, before going in.

Hairy Woodpecker

The hole was fairly deep, and she slipped down, first just her tail feathers protruding, then disappearing entirely.

Hairy Woodpecker

She was only gone a moment before her head popped back up, though. She did this twice during the span that I watched. Neither time did she seem to go in with food. The second time she came out with what appeared to be a wood chip. I didn’t hear any cheeping, and baby woodpeckers are notoriously noisy, so if there were any in there I would’ve heard. But she wasn’t staying in, so she must not have eggs. I had to conclude that she didn’t have a nest after all, but maybe was scoping out potential sites for next year?

Hairy Woodpecker

Then she checked out this little knot. And pulled out a grub. Maybe she was just looking for food after all.

I’d been watching her a good twenty minutes or so, running off constant photos, curiously following where she went and what she was doing, when she headed up this slanted branch. She swung around to its underside, and then as she twisted her head to probe into a crack in the bark…

Hairy Woodpecker

…I could see red in his crown! Yes, all along it had been a boy. Young males, males that were hatched this summer, won’t have that red nape yet, but they will have red speckled through the crown as this one does. It’s funny that I didn’t notice it at all in the 20 minutes prior. Especially since, once I got all the photos onto my computer, it was incredibly obvious in so many of the photos. I had to pick through them carefully to make sure I chose ones that didn’t show any red for the images above! Females can actually show a bit of red in the crown as juveniles, but it’s rarely extensive (this is on the intermediate side of extensive, and it could be hard to call this either way, but I’d lean toward boy). I’ll blame my lack of attention on the lighting. Or being so caught up in watching his behaviour. Or something.

Woodpecker wuz here


While out hunting for fungus last week, I happened to notice quite a number of trees with woodpecker holes. The absence of foliage on the plants provides a much different view of the forest (or other habitat). Things that are usually obscured are now exposed. Sometimes it’s not that the thing was obscured, but rather that you just looked past it because there was so much going on that you were distracted by other things. But now with the leaves gone, and the ground cover under a thick layer of snow, other things start to pop out at you. Like birds’ nests (but that’s another post). It’s actually possible to determine who made the holes in the tree you’re looking at, if you know the characteristics to look for.

There are five species of woodpecker that regularly frequent the woods around my parents’ place. There are actually seven that can be found in southern Ontario, nine in Ontario as a whole, but only five that are particularly widespread. The first one is the Northern Flicker. These birds actually migrate south in the winter, and very few remain in the province during the cold months. This is because, although a woodpecker, their primary foraging method is by probing the ground for grubs. They will and do forage on trees, but you’re more likely to find them feeding on your lawn. Of course, when your lawn is under several inches of snow, it’s difficult for flickers to make a living. So they head south to warmer climes (this is unfortunate, because they are beautifully plumaged woodpeckers and would add a nice splash of colour to the winter landscape – do a google search for Northern Flicker to check them out).


The smallest of the remaining four is the Downy Woodpecker. They are the quintessential woodpecker of birdfeeders, the bold little guy who is often found hanging out at suet feeders (check out the suet feeder image in my previous post). My parents had some emergency roof repairs done last week, and at one point the workers were tidying up shingles from the ground by the house while the local Downy watched from the suet feeder six feet away. Being the smallest, they also make the smallest holes in trees. The holes in the above image are only about half an inch wide on the largest ones, and can be a quarter of an inch on the smaller ones. Because of their size, Downy Woodpeckers will often perch on goldenrod stalks with galls (those little balls you sometimes see halfway up the stem) and peck out the grub from inside. If you check out galls in the winter, as often as not there’ll be a hole in one side from a Downy (chickadees will also peck out gall larvae – you can tell who was there by the tidiness of the hole – chickadees are very messy as their bills aren’t as specifically designed for the job).


The Hairy Woodpecker looks superficially similar to the Downy, but is actually a larger bird, with a longer, stronger beak. Their handiwork can usually be found on dead tree snags or logs. Their typical hole is slightly larger than that of Downys, up to a couple inches, and often has a slightly rectangular shape to it. You’ll usually find a series of such holes in the log or dead branch, grouped together. The holes in the birch at the top of the post were probably also made by a Hairy. Most woodpeckers have barbed tips to their tongues that they use like spears to snag bugs or larvae hidden deep within the wood. These barbs are coated with a sticky saliva that makes them extra secure. A woodpecker’s tongue wraps back behind its skull, and can be as much as three times as long as the length of its beak! Check out the photos at the above link, pretty amazing.


The largest woodpecker in Canada is the Pileated Woodpecker (pronounced either pill-ee-ate-id or pie-lee-ate-id, depending on your preference – I say the former). These stunning birds are about the size of a crow, with a long neck with white stripes, and a gorgeous red crest. They’re such beautiful birds, I have to post a photo of this female I photographed foraging on my parents’ lawn a few years ago. You can tell she’s a female because, while both sexes have the red crest, the black “moustache” is actually red in males.


Lovely, isn’t she? While she’s foraging on the ground in this photo, Pileateds more often search for grubs on dead trees or logs, or even in live trees with heartrot (decaying inside, where you can’t see it – but the birds can tell!). With those massive, powerful beaks they can really do some damage. Pileated holes are often as big as, or larger than, your fist, going deep into the heart of the tree. As you can see in the photo above, the Pileated who hammered these holes dug into a live tree (the sap is dripping down the bark) into its decaying centre. It must have found a good haul, too, because it made many holes, and digging through the still-live outer bark is no easy feat!


Pileateds also have the power to pry up the bark off dead trees in order to get at bugs right underneath. In the photo above, the bird has removed most of the bark from the trunk by inserting its beak under a loose edge and using it like a lever to flake it off. On this particular tree the bird had started at about our eye level and worked its way all the way up to near the top, about ten or twelve feet of bark-flaking. Also another sign that there must have been good eats underneath!


Indeed, if we look closer, we can see the trails of bark beetles and their larvae. These trails went all the way around the trunk, and as far up as I could see. Speaking of things you see in the winter… but that’s also for another post. If you scroll back up to the Downy’s hole photo, you’ll notice that at the bottom there’s a small bit of bark flaked off there, too. It was taken on the same tree, and they were obviously interested in the same good food source.


The fourth, and final, woodpecker my parents get is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And no, that’s not a made-up name! It is indeed yellow-bellied, and it really does suck sap. Or feeds on sap, anyway, if not by a sucking method. Sapsuckers lack the barbs that the other woodpeckers have, instead having a feathery texture that absorbs liquid to allow the bird to drink by lapping at the sap, much like a cat laps up a bowl of milk. Sapsuckers drill “sap wells” into live trees and feed on the sap that oozes out of the wounds. They have a characteristic habit of drilling in straight rows, like above, that are easy to identify. The sap produced by sapsucker wells is not only used by the sapsuckers themselves, but also provides food to other animals, such as some insects like ants and bees, and hummingbirds, who, particularly in the spring before many flowers are blooming, need an additional source of sweet food. Sapsuckers are also migratory, and leave for the winter. We haven’t seen the sapsucker pair that used to nest on my parents’ property for a couple years, and it may be they’ve died and nobody’s moved into their empty territory. The sapsucker holes in the photo are a few years old.


This last hole wasn’t made by any woodpecker! This is an example of a live tree with heartrot. In this case, a branch was torn off, likely in a storm, and exposed the decaying interior of the tree. Although the outside and branches look superficially healthy, it’s obvious the tree is in decline. Some of the sawdust from the cavity was on the ground at the base of the tree, and I suspect this hole is likely used as a frequent snoozing spot by a raccoon. Seems pretty cozy to me!