Woodpeckers of the parks

HANCOCK COUNTY — Let’s talk a bit today about the woodpeckers that hang around our parks. There are 22 species (known as Picinae, which includes flickers and sapsuckers) in the United States; here, we have five species.

In our area, we have the red-headed, red-bellied, downey, pileated and hairy woodpeckers. In size, they range from the downey, about 3 inches (the size of a sparrow) up to the pileated, which grows to about 17 inches (the size of a crow).

No matter what their size, they all have one thing in common — they are all cavity-nesters. They all make holes in trees and limbs in which to sleep at night and raise their young.

Red-headed woodpecker: This one gets to about 9 inches (about the size of a jay). The entire head is red with bluish-black wings and back. They prefer open deciduous woods but have been known to nest in telephone poles and fence posts. Generally four to five eggs will be laid, and both parents will incubate and feed. It is also one of the few birds where the male and female look alike.

Red-bellied woodpecker: This bird gets to about 8 inches tall, about the size of a robin. The male has a red crown and nape, while the female only has a red nape. They can live up to eight years in the wild, although some that have been banded have been found to live up to 20 years. Both birds raise the young. The red-bellied woodpecker does like to visit feeders.

Downy woodpecker: This is our smallest, about the size of a sparrow. It is also the most abundant woodpecker. It is a black and white bird with a red patch on its head. It looks like a hairy woodpecker, except that its bill is smaller. This is the one you will generally see hanging around your suet. It likes to hang around just about any wooded area.

Pileated woodpecker: This one is our largest, about the size of a crow, up to 17 inches. Look for a prominent red crest. They prefer to be in a mature forest but can also be found in suburban woodlots. Unlike other woodpeckers, their excavation hole is square rather than round. Both parents incubate the eggs.

Hairy woodpecker: This is a robin-sized bird and fairly long-lived, up to 15 years. It’s a black and white with the males having a red patch on the head. A bit shyer than the downy, it likes wood-boring beetles.

Here are some fun facts about woodpeckers that you can use to liven up your next party or staff meeting.

The skull of the woodpecker is different from other birds. They have a bone that projects above the base of the upper bill, which results in a rounded forehead.

When pecking, woodpeckers prevent the wood dust and chips from entering their nostrils by having specialized feathers covering them.

Because woodpeckers normally have a large tree in front of them, their eyes are located on the side instead of in the front. They also have excellent color vision.

In the woodpecker family, the flickers have the longest tongues, extending 2 inches beyond their bill.

Unlike most birds that have three toes forward and one back, the woodpecker has two forward and two back, which helps them cling to a vertical surface.

Woodpeckers use their tail to help keep them stable on a tree. The tail acts as the third leg of a tripod.

Some woodpeckers dine on the eggs of other birds. They poke a hole in the egg and then lap up the yolk.

Sapsuckers, when returning in the spring, will drill a series of small round holes around the truck of a maple tree to obtain the sap. Often, they will dip insects in the sap before feeding it to their young.

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of a handful (out of 200) that will store food. They store theirs in the cracks of tree branches and trunks.

Woodpeckers will often have three or four different cavities that they stay in. When sleeping, they will cling to the wall instead of sleeping on the floor.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.