The other morning as John and I sat in the van having our customary morning cigarette, I looked over into the trees and saw a male Red Bellied Woodpecker (which folks around here mistakenly call a Red-Headed Woodpecker) looking for breakfast, his red-capped head distinguishing bird from tree bark. I pointed him out to John and then went on to explain in lengthy detail the three (four if you count the Nuthatch as a kind of woodpecker, though I’m sure it actually isn’t) different woodpeckers that frequent the area.
John, being a sheltered Kansas boy, had always heard, but never seen a woodpecker. Yes. I know, right?
I explained that the Red-Bellied is the largest of our native woodpeckers. In spring he’s the loudest, too. Males have a red hood that stretches down their necks where the females have a small patch at the crown. Males are territorial during spring courtship and summer chick-rearing, but they get along like old chums at a friendly football game come fall, when they’re focused on fattening up for winter.
Just as I’m sitting here, telling John about the other two birds, the smallest of our woodpeckers – the Downy Woodpecker – shows up and energetically and meticulously picks over the dead Elder saplings along the fence line.
These are my favorites. They’re half the size of the Red-Bellied, they’re beaks proportionately smaller, and in my personal experience, more gregarious than the larger woodpeckers. I used to watch them from the living room window all winter as they ran up and down the trunk of the maple tree next to our bird feeder, waiting to dart in amongst the hulking Jays and boisterous grackles to steal a sunflower seed. It’s fun to watch these guys because they can crack a seed in just about any position – I watched one crack and eat a seed clinging upside down on a branch before.
The males are again easy to tell by the red patch on the back of their head. Females lack this patch and can only be distinguished from the Hairy woodpecker by its size.
As if I wasn’t pleased enough to show John two different types of woodpeckers, our third woodpecker resident, the Hairy Woodpecker, comes dropping out of the trees right next to the van. It hops over to an elm tree and climbs up it, stopping every now and again to experimentally hammer at the trunk. He’s a big fellow. He looks exactly like the Downy – red patch and all – except that he’s nearly as big as the Red-Bellied and he doesn’t have that certain “fuzzy cute” look to him that the Downy has.
We watched as the Hairy climbed to a branch joint seven feet off the ground and suddenly hammer enthusiastically. A few seconds later he flew into a nearby thicket of young black locust, something fat and juicy looking in his beak. Just a bird. Doin’ his job of ridding the trees of pests while getting a tasty meal.
I turned to John and said, “Well, I’ll be damned! It’s as if they knew we were talking about them. You got to see all three of our woodpeckers within ten minutes!”
The wondrous magic of Nature never ceases to surprise me with its touch.