Life In The ‘Hood, Diary of a Backyard Birder: January

The Christmas tree and decorations have been put away, the happy chaos of dinner parties and visits with family and friends has died down and our house is settling into its normal routines as a new year begins. My morning bird walks are crisp and chilly as I wade through puddles of yellow, orange and golden leaves in our neighborhood parks and streets, but the days quickly warm to a comfortable 65 degrees, allowing me to stay longer. The sky is a different blue in January, more intense and luminous than in the shimmering heat of the summer. This is winter in Arizona and I love it; it’s the perfect time for birding.

My mind is on the woodpecker and its relatives; they seem to be everywhere! In Verrado, year-‘round residents like the Gila (pronounced heela) Woodpecker keep me entertained with their loud, insistent squawks. In the winter we also get a number of visiting Picidae (pronounced piss-a-day), a diverse family of birds found on five continents that includes woodpeckers, sapsuckers and flickers. These birds have a propensity for boring into wood with chisel-like beaks, making them the target of many an angry human who has had to repair damage to the exterior of buildings. The anger is understandable, I suppose, but it is unfortunate that these beautiful birds have to take the rap (pun intended) simply for doing what comes naturally.

A male Ladder-backed Woodpecker drilling into the trunk of a tree.

Some of you may be familiar with these birds, having watched a woodpecker hammer away at the trunk or branch of a tree, chips flying, as it excavates a nest cavity or digs for tasty beetles. But have you ever wondered: How does this bird pound with all that force without getting a headache or doing severe damage to its body?

Specialized Adaptations

A woodpecker's head strikes with at least 1,000 times the force of gravity and several specialized adaptations contribute to its ability to absorb that shock. To start with, it has a sharp beak that pierces into the wood rather than abruptly stopping, as well as a spongy cartilage at the base of the beak to absorb the force of all that hammering. Other modifications are strong neck muscles and a thick skull, which is protected from the concussive force of drumming by a narrow space around the brain to absorb the shock.

All woodpeckers use drumming to proclaim territory and attract mates, and each species can often be identified by the length and speed of the drumming, as well as changes in tempo, frequency or intensity. However, I have yet to achieve that particular skill level of bird identification!

To protect their eyes from all the debris flying around, woodpeckers have a translucent third eyelid called a nictitating membrane that cleanses and protects the eye, while maintaining visibility, something akin to wearing safety goggles. The membrane also acts as a kind of "seat belt” so the retina doesn't tear.

Illustration by Denise Takahashi

Woodpecker tongues vary according to species, but all are long and narrow and have an assortment of barbs near the tip, which allows the bird to extend its tongue far out of its bill to reach food in deep crevices or holes. Storage of such a long tongue when it's not in use can be problematic, but a woodpecker's tongue is supported by a series of bones that wrap around the jaw and over the top of the head, inserting into the right nostril in some cases. Woodpeckers also produce large amounts of sticky saliva that coat the tongue, enhancing their ability to capture insects.

Gila Woodpecker

A male Gila Woodpecker uses its powerful neck muscles and a chisel-like beak to bore into a palm tree. Females and juveniles lack the red crown.

This is the woodpecker my friends in Arizona will recognize. Gila Woodpeckers are by far the most common and, in my opinion, noisiest species of the Picidae family here. They are the rock star drummers of the bird rhythm section, flamboyantly banging out their mating and territorial message on any rain gutter, building, air vent or telephone pole they can find, each carefully selected for its resonating quality. They glean insects from bark, probe into holes in dead wood and gather food from the ground.

Acorn Woodpecker

A striking black-and-white bird, the female Acorn Woodpecker (left) is very similar to the male except for a black patch between her white forehead and red crown. Juveniles are similar to males, but with a dark eye (right).

Acorn Woodpeckers are the circus clowns, traveling in gregarious groups, dressed in their flashy harlequin costumes, topped with a red cap and outlandish facial makeup. They raucously bounce from tree limb to tree limb, flying at death-defying speed through the tree tops, laughing and calling to one another and stopping only briefly to gather acorns or look for insects. Unlike the monogamous and solitary Gila, Acorn Woodpeckers are highly social and polygamous, with both males and females competing vigorously during breeding season.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

The female (left) Ladder-backed Woodpecker has a black crown, while the male sports a brilliant red crown that extends to the eye.

One of our smaller woodpeckers, the Ladder-backed Woodpecker has a contact call that is a sharp squeak, which I often hear before I see the bird, and a distinct descending whinny. They inhabit areas forested with oaks along the coast and foothills of Oregon, California and the deserts of the Southwest, through Central America to Colombia. Generally, they prefer drier climates with smaller trees and shrubs where male and female often forage together, concentrating on different spots: males more on trunks and big limbs, females more on outer twigs, bushes and cacti. A few manage to find Verrado in the winter and hang out in the oaks and mesquites in the washes throughout our community.

Lewis's Woodpecker

I seldom hear the Lewis's Woodpecker, whose call is a weak, sneezy sound with an equally weak, short drum. But you can't miss this large, dark, long-winged woodpecker as it perches at the top of oak and palm trees or the snag of a dead tree. Its glossy black/green body, dark red face, pink belly and gray collar make it one of the more elegant looking birds in the Picidae family. I was thrilled to find my first one in Verrado three years ago, just as I was starting my serious bird photography, and one or two have shown up each winter.

Sapsuckers

Red-naped (left) and Red-breasted Sapsuckers are identified by the amount of red on their heads and black on their backs. These two species often interbreed where their ranges overlap.

There are four species of Sapsucker in North America and while I have seen all four, only two have found their way to Verrado – so far: Red-naped and Red-breasted. They are harder to find than their more boisterous cousins and often a soft rat-a-tat is my only clue that one is present. Another indication of Sapsucker activity in the area is the nearly parallel holes they drill in live trees, leaving the tree to ooze its sap. They’ll return later to feed on both the sap and the insects that are attracted to it. Hummingbirds have formed a commensalism relationship with sapsuckers, feeding on the sap that drips out of the holes. The hair-like fringes at the tip of a sapsucker's tongue act like a mop to soak up the sap. Appropriately, a group of sapsuckers is known as a "slurp."

Flickers

Male (on left with red mustache or malar) and female Gilded Flickers spend a lot of time on the ground or perched upright on branches rather than leaning against their tails on a trunk.

According to the Maricopa Audubon Society Internet site, Flickers consume more ants than any other North American bird species. Because of this penchant for ants, Flickers have developed even longer tongues, capable of extending five inches outside the bill to probe deeply into anthills.

Identification of the two species of Flickers can be difficult for new birders; habitats and appearances are nearly identical. However, the Gilded Flicker, whose range is limited to riparian woods and the saguaro deserts of southern Arizona and into Mexico, has a bright cinnamon forehead with a brown crown and nape, and yellow on the underside of the wings, often only seen when the bird is in flight.

Male Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. They are normally found in the East, into Texas and the Great Plains.

The more common and widespread Northern Flicker is identified by a brown crown and orange underwings and has two easily distinguished races: Red-shafted in the West, and Yellow-shafted in the East. These species hybridize where ranges overlap and " Intergrades" can have any combination of features from both races. I've seen several Integrades in Verrado over the years, but this year, a pure Yellow-shafted, with its black mustache, red crescent and yellow underwings showed up.

A Unique Family of Birds

Scientists classify birds and divide them into orders, each order into families, families into genera, each genus into species, etc. The Picidae family is one of nine that make up the order Piciformes, which contains about 450 species, of which the Picidae make up about half. North America has 22 species of Picidae and of those I've seen 15, eight here in Verrado!

The exquisite beauty and diversity of this family of birds warrants respect and awe, despite some habits annoying to humans. Unique adaptations to prevent damage from a life of hard knocks and their ability to capture hidden morsels with specialized tongues serve as prime examples of what makes this species so remarkable.

Red-naped Sapsucker Male.

2 thoughts on “Life In The ‘Hood, Diary of a Backyard Birder: January”

    1. I live in Buckeye in a community called Verrado and for the last three or four years we’ve had at least one Lewis’s Woodpecker spend the winter with us. When all of this pandemic storm is behind us, I’d be happy to show you his favorite haunts!

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