With trees bare of leaves, winter is an opportune time to spot woodpeckers. The treed areas of Northern Virginia are frequented by several species.
Six woodpecker species can be seen in the Washington, D.C., area: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed and Pileated, plus Northern Flicker. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter visitor.
Woodpeckers have strong, chisel-like bills, specialized tail feathers and feet and barbed tongues, adaptations that allow them to fully exploit woodland habitats. With their short legs and sharp claws, they can climb trees and peck for larvae, grubs or ants in the trees’ wood.
Woodpeckers often make their presence known by pecking or drumming on dead tree limbs and in some cases, unleashing a mini-shower of bark or wood chips from a tree. They usually drum on hollow branches, says the website of the National Audubon Society, but they may be attracted to wooden fence posts, utility poles and buildings. They are known to peck on a house’s gutter or siding. In the spring, woodpeckers drum in rapid, “machine gun,” rhythmic succession to establish a territory, attract mates and carve out a cavity for a nesting site.
Their bills allow them to excavate their nest cavities, which are often used by other bird and mammal species, including chickadees, owls, bats and flying squirrels. The sizes and shapes of the holes they drill vary by bird species. These holes are often easy to see in dead limbs.
Why Are Woodpeckers Special?
“Woodpecker tongues are especially unique – long and flexible with barbed tips coated with a sticky fluid produced under the tongue, which allows them to spear insects and grubs far beyond the reach of other birds and animals,” says Gemma Radko of the American Bird Conservancy.
Most birds have one toe pointing back and three pointing forward on each foot, but woodpeckers have two clawed toes pointing forward and two back, an arrangement referred to as “zygodactal” feet. This helps them cling on to the sides of trees and keep their balance. Many woodpeckers also have specialized, stiffened tail feathers, used as props to help support their weight as they move up and down tree trunks.
Here are brief descriptions of woodpeckers you can see in the Mount Vernon area:
Red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus)
Some say the Red-bellied Woodpecker is misnamed because the “cap” on its head is very red. Actually there’s a faint red splash on the belly. It has a black-and-white barred back and wings.
Red-headed (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
This species is the least common woodpecker in northern
Virginia, has a distinctive solid red head and neck and prominent white patch on its rump.
Downy (Picoides pubsecens)
The smallest woodpecker in North America, the Downy is around six-to-seven inches in size, has a very short bill and white back.
Hairy (Picoides villosus)
The Hairy is similar to the Downy with a white back, but larger, around 9 inches. The length of the beak is about the same as the width of the head, a way to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy.
Pileated (Dryocopus pileatus)
By far, the most dramatic “local” woodpecker is the pileated, the “Woody Woodpecker” of woodpeckers, and the largest (16 to 17 inches) woodpecker in North America. It has an unmistakable flaming red crest and leaves rectangular holes in dead trees.
Northern Flicker (Colaptes amuratus)
This bird is around 12 to 13 inches in size, sports striking tan and black-streaked plumage and golden yellow under the wings. A white rump in flight is an instant identifier.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
If you see neatly-spaced, ascending rings of holes around a tree, you’ve been visited by a sapsucker, who drills for sap. This bird has black and white bars, a red cap and in males, red throat.They can work on trees for long periods.