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!