Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
We have a healthy population of red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) on our farm. They regularly come to our bird feeder and can be seen flying over the farm throughout the day. One of their favorite places to land is on the electric poles that cross our property. I don’t think they are finding any insects in those poles but they have a good view of the open areas and surrounding trees.
So why isn’t the Red-bellied woodpecker called a Red-headed woodpecker? After all, the last thing you notice on its belly is the slight rose blush. The story is that the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocecephalslus) was named first (and indeed its head and neck are bright red) so the name was already taken.
The Red-bellied call is loud and frequently heard during the spring and summer. It could best be described as a loud trilling, descending in pitch. I love to research each bird I see on our farm: unique behaviors, their life span, what they eat, and aspects of their life. One of the things I found in researching the red-bellied is that it can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky (similar to a Pileated woodpecker), which allows them to snatch prey (primarily insects) from deep crevices in trees. I have seen them wedge nuts into crevices on top of one of our fence posts – then whack the nut into smaller pieces which they quickly consume. They are opportunistic feeders, eating berries, seeds, small invertebrates, as well as lizards, frogs, fish and bird nestlings. They even occasionally catch flying insects in the air. Like other woodpeckers, they may store nuts and seeds during the fall in crevices, to be eaten during the winter.
The male red-bellied may excavate several holes, with the female selecting which one is completed and used. They may also use natural cavities, abandoned holes of other woodpeckers, or a nest box. In our area red-bellieds usually raise 2-3 broods each year. One of their major nest predators are European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Scientists have found that as many as half of all red-headed woodpecker nests in some areas get invaded by starlings.
The life span of woodpeckers ranges from 4 - 11 years. The oldest known Red-bellied lived to over 12 years and was identified in the wild by his band.
Birding tip: Birds are most active between dawn and 11 am. This is particularly the case in spring and early summer, when birds sing in the early morning. So get out there before your breakfast and you’re bound to see more birds than after lunch!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
The Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest woodpecker in North America. We have several on our farm and they are amazing to watch in flight. Their exaggerated swooping and their large body make them easy to identify. But they are not related to pterodactyls – they just give that impression with their size and “jack-hammer” approach to bug hunting. These woodpeckers live in Virginia year-round and, unlike most other birds, they will defend their territory all year as well – not just during breeding season.
According to Birds of North America (an amazing publication of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Pileateds prefer an oak-hickory forest with mature stands of dense vegetation near the ground. They have a long-extensible, pointed tongue with barbs and sticky saliva. They use their tongues to extract ants from tunnels in rotting wood. A pair of pileated woodpeckers needs a large amount of land – around 150 acres or more – to raise their young.
The Pileated, like most woodpeckers, nest in hollow trees or vacated nest cavities. They excavate only the entrance hole to gain access to the hollow interior of a tree. They often have multiple entrances holes, so they have an escape route if a predator enters the roost. We have not seen the Pileated’s nest site on our farm yet but we know it is in a heavily wooded area in a steep ravine at the back of our property. They play a vital role in forests like the one adjacent to the north side of our farm. They excavate large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are then used by all sorts of other birds and mammals. That can include wood ducks, bats and flying squirrels.
Scientists have noticed that Pileated woodpecker numbers increase in areas with widespread emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills ash trees. That could mean that these woodpeckers could be one of the strongest lines of defense to control non-native forest pests. So leave those dead and dying trees out there for these wonderful woodpeckers. They’ll improve the habitat and attract all sorts of wildlife to your property.
Birding tip: You can often tell the difference between a Pileated and other woodpeckers by their drumming, without even seeing it. Most woodpeckers drum at a steady pace. A Pileated drums slowly, accelerating and then trailing off. And as Audubon notes, “their loud, escalating shrieks bring to mind a maniacal laugh. " So true!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
You have probably seen a turkey vulture (or two or three) on the side of the road, eating “road kill," AKA carrion. You might have also seen them soaring in the sky, looking for a meal. These birds and their cousins - the black vulture – play a very important role in the natural world. They truly are nature’s cleanup crew.
On my daily bird walk, I don’t always see vultures. I wondered about this and then realized that they conserve energy by soaring. They rarely flap their wings. Since I walk fairly early in the morning, the air is often still. But on those mornings when the wind is up, I can count on seeing turkey vultures, who are taking advantage of the air thermals coming down from the mountains. They have extremely well-developed eyesight. As I researched them a little more, I was fascinated to learn that they first detect freshly rotting meat with their nose: they have been known to smell carrion from over a mile away. I also found out that our farm is the ideal habitat for vultures: they are found in relatively open areas (our hay field) near to woodlands, which are important for both nesting and roosting. But they’re certainly not limited to our farm in their daily search for food. Turkey vultures can travel up to 200 miles in a single day.
While a vulture’s feet can’t be used to kill prey, like those of a hawk or eagle, their beaks are strong enough to rip through cowhide. But they like their meat fairly fresh. Apparently by the fourth day they will not feed on carrion because the meat is too rotten. So that’s why we’ll sometimes see a partially eaten carcass of a deer or other large animal alongside of the road. Guess that extraordinary sense of smell has another purpose!
The Chattahoochee Nature Center has a fascinating web page on turkey vultures with even more information about their abilities.
So when we see the cleanup crew at work, we can be thankful for the great job they are doing!
Birding tip: Did you know that the five keys to bird ID are size, shape, color pattern, behavior and habitat. When you’re out birding, try to make it a practice to mentally recognize those five aspects of each bird you see. It very quickly becomes a habit and you’ll be able to identify a lot more birds – and know what birds to expect in the habitat you’re in.
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