Clellie Lynch: The uncommon woodpeckers

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> The sun glimmers through the trees sending sparkles and twinkles across the lawn. The early morning glittering frost reminds us that it really is December and winter is a'comin.' As the sun melts the frost, the lawn once again emerges emerald green. Even though berries remain juicy, and nuts uncovered, the birds continue to deplete the feeders throughout the day.

Chickadees sweep in, take a seed and land on a branch not too far away. Titmice and nuthatches compete on either side of the ball feeders, sometimes scared away by a huge blue jay or three. The word is out! The pair of mourning doves that have graced the feeder for the last few weeks has grown into a flock of 14.

Woodpeckers peck away at the chunks of suet careless of any bits falling to the ground. Turkeys trots in from the woods picking and pecking at the ground under the feeder. Red and gray squirrels dash among the turkey legs popping seeds and suet into their pouches.

As I sit near the kitchen window, I hear the sham-shack of a red-bellied woodpecker announcing his arrival in the area. In moments, the bird is on the suet ripping one small piece of fat after another from the caged chunk. His head is scarlet in the sunlight, the barring on his back quite vivid. When the bird hops to the side of the feeder, I see its red belly. This time it is not just a mere splash of orange, but a vivid red. Hence, the name. Not as red though as the splashy red-headed woodpecker which is becoming rarer and rarer in this neck of the woods.

Curious that ornithologists seeking to give individual species unique and descriptive names focused on this pale red wash of a belly. Similarly, why is it called a ring-necked duck when the ring on the bill much more prominent than the one around the neck. Go figure!

Woodpeckers do just that ... spend hours and days pecking into wood, ripping bark off trunks and poking into rotting trees seeking hidden insect morsels. Twenty-eight species of woodpeckers breed in the North America, six in and around our woods. Some flee south for the winter: sapsuckers and many flickers. Some keep to themselves and occasionally come near the feeder: pileated. The other three are entrenched feeder birds: the downy, hairy and, of late, the red-bellied. All our local male woodpeckers have some red on the head, but the red-bellied's patch is more scarlet than red.

The red-bellied, now officially called Melanerpes carolinus (once Centúrus carolinus, and even further back, Picus carolinus), has not only become a breeder in this area, but also is hearty enough to hang around during the winter especially if foraging is not an issue.

JP Giraud in "Birds of Long Island" (1844) has an entry stating the red-bellied was not very abundant, but did breed in his part of New York. The red-headed, though, was the commonest there during the early 19th century. Ralph Hoffmann in "A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York" (1904) does not have an entry for red-bellied woodpeckers, but does for the red-headed stating that it is a permanent resident of New York and along Lake Champlain in Vermont, but accidental to most of New England.

Forbush in "Birds of Massachusetts" (1927) has the red-bellied as breeders, while the red-headed is only a casual visitor. "Bent in Lives of North American Birds" (1939) has both species as being much more western and definitely southern with occasional sightings and records of breeding in our area.

Check both editions (2000 and '14) of the "Sibley Guide to Birds" to see how the distributions of these two conspicuous and showy woodpeckers are changing. One could always rely on seeing a red-bellied woodpecker 40 years ago in Forest Park in Queens, N.Y. to check off for the May birdathon. Now all I have to do is look out my window any day of the week.

Red-headeds, Melanerpes erythrocephalus, are more difficult to find. Danny and I saw one nearby the first year we were here, 1985. We did find them two other years in Rhinebeck again for the May birdathon. Danny has been seeing an immature these past few weeks in Central Park in New York City. In the last 12 years, the red-bellied has been observed eight of those years on the annual Christmas Count. The red-headed, never.

Though these two species do not look alike, they sound alike, at least in one of their major calls. Both have been described as sounding like a tree frog with a rolling krrrrrr or maybe a loud and solemn churrrrrr. Both have harsher two-note calls, the red-bellied's is transliterated as sham-shack, jam-jack, ram-shack, while the red-headed bleats out a 'wheezy queeeah!

Nor do they forage alike. The red-bellied is a driller and an excavator, though in Florida is known for feasting on the orange crop. They prefer deciduous or swampy woods. The red-headed forages like a flycatcher or a bluebird, feeds on the ground like a flicker and prefers open canopy woods, especially beech. But if these two species overlap, they have been observed as being quite aggressive towards one another, the Montagues and Capulets of the woodpecker world.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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