Flight Patterns and Woodpeckers

by Dave Hanks

Have you ever seriously watched birds fly? Undoubtedly, you’ve watched the high fliers like geese, as they wing overhead. But have you ever paid attention to how smaller birds fly from tree to tree, or tree to bush, bush to ground? If you have, you realize that each type has a distinctive flight pattern.

Jays do what we expect, which is to fly straight to their next destination. Goldfinch will dip down deeply, ride up sharply, and then repeat the process. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets do a lot of zigzagging to finally get to where they stop. But it’s the woodpeckers that are the most recognizable in flight.

Undulating is the phrase that best describes their movement. A few wing beats that lifts them up, followed by a descending glide, and then a few more wing beats. I can always identify our large Red-Shafted Flicker, as I see his white rump undulating up and down across an open space.

The RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER is a comparable eastern cousin to our flicker. It may be seen doing an erratic flight pattern between trees, changing course sharply as it goes. It is believed that this is a method of teaching the young to be able to meet adverse conditions. It is a cavity nester that doesn’t always make its own cavity – taking over the nest holes of other birds. They will also wedge nuts into large cracks in tree crevices or fence posts to store for later use.

This most common woodpecker of the Southeast has a faint red wash over its belly – but its most noticeable trait is the bold, red stripe on the crown and neck of the male – the female has the red on the nape of her neck only. This bird can stick its tongue out 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and sticky. This woodpecker will readily come to feeders.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker At our feed trough in the Indiana woods

At our feed trough in the Indiana woods

An Attractive Brown – Capped with Red

The ARIZONA WOODPECKER, a sub-species of Strickland’s Woodpecker, is quite attractive for a brown and white bird. Most male woodpeckers have a red crown, and so it is with this species. The red adds a very pleasing contrast to the brown. This is the only brown and white woodpecker in North America, therefore it is easily identified.

This bird has four basic calls: a rattle made by the male calling the female while in flight; a sharp, squeaky keech by the female when answering; a peep call to warn any intruder in their territory; and a tuk-tuk-tuk call by the babies when receiving food. The male does a fluttering, gliding display when courting the female, and they both drill a cavity that is about 12 inches deep and is left unlined. The young are altricial and are constantly brooded by either parent.

Their habitat is within southwestern oak or oak/pine forests that are between 4900 to 5500 feet elevation – where they feed on the insects in a tree’s bark by starting at the base of the trunk and then working up to the top. This species is vulnerable, because it is tied to a narrow forest elevation range.

We always look with great anticipation for this species when we are in its habitat. Once on a bird walk, some people had heard that an Arizona Woodpecker was in the area and really, really wanted to see it. We all looked and looked but couldn’t find it. The next day, my wife and I went to the same area. There he was out in the open just pecking away. We watched him for some time. This species is harder to find than other woodpeckers that have louder calls. They are also less abundant. When we do find one, it’s a real “charge”! They will come to suet, and they seem to like peanut butter that’s smeared on a tree’s trunk.

The southwest has many colorful forest bird species, and that is a lure that often draws us south during the winter or early spring months.

A male Arizona Woodpecker foraging on the underside of a limb

A male foraging on the underside of a limb

Acorn Woodpeckers make punch-board patterns on trees

Here is a food storage king. A most interesting set of holes are drilled into a tree’s bark. The pattern looks very much like a “punch board” and each hole will contain an acorn. Some trees have been found to have up to 50,000 holes. These trees are referred to as granary trees. The bird’s life revolves around these nuts, and they are very important in the propagation of oak forests. This species can always be found in scrub oak and pine woodlands of the southwest. Pines produce a lot of sap, and this medium-sized woodpecker loves the sticky exudation. Wooden posts have also served as recipients of their hole drilling.

This is an interesting “fellow” with his prominent eye – with its very obvious pupil, his red cap, white forehead and chin, and streaked breast. (The female lacks the red cap) A common nickname for the bird is “clown-faced”.

Acorn Woodpeckers are very social and live in large family groups. The whole family will defend their territory. One to seven males will compete for the attention of 1 to 3 females. These females will then share the same tree cavity when nesting. Each female, before laying her eggs, will destroy many of the previously laid eggs – thus it is estimated that a third of all eggs never survive. The young will stay in the group for several years and help in the raising of the babies.

We have had many experiences with this bird in south-eastern Arizona. When setting up in a campground, they will be waiting with great anticipation in a tree close by. The feed we put out will have hardly left our hands before they swoop down to partake of it. While acorns are their staple, they love peanut butter and suet and will come in often to feed on it. They are very belligerent in the defense of this new food source.

(On a pine limb and his eye agleam)