Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Golden-winged Woodpecker

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Picus auratus, Linn.

PLATE XXXVII. Male and Female.

It is generally agreeable to be in the company of individuals who are naturally animated and pleasant. For this reason, nothing can be more gratifying than the society of Woodpeckers in the forests. To prove this to you, kind reader, I shall give you a full account of the habits of the Golden-winged Woodpecker.

This species, which is usually called Pique-bois jaune by the French settlers in Louisiana, and receives the name of High-holder, Yucker, and Flicker in other parts of the Union, being seldom or never graced with the epithet Golden-winged, employed by naturalists, is one of the most lively of our birds, and is found over the whole of the United States.

No sooner has spring called them to the pleasant duty of making love, as it is called, than their voice, which, by the way, is not at all disagreeable to the ear of man, is heard from the tops of high decayed trees, proclaiming with delight the opening of the welcome season. Their note at this period is merriment itself, as it imitates a prolonged and jovial laugh, heard at a considerable distance. Several males pursue a female, reach her, and, to prove the force and truth of their love, bow their heads, spread their tail, and move sidewise, backwards and forwards, performing such antics, as might induce any one witnessing them, if not of a most morose temper, to join his laugh to theirs. The female flies to another tree, where she is closely followed by one, two, or even half a dozen of these gay suitors, and where again the same ceremonies are gone through. No fightings occur, no jealousies seem to exist among these beaux, until a marked preference is shewn to some individual, when the rejected proceed in search of another female. In this manner all the Golden-winged Woodpeckers are soon happily mated. Each pair immediately proceed to excavate the trunk of a tree, and finish a hole in it sufficient to contain themselves and their young. They both work with great industry and apparent pleasure. Should the male, for instance, be employed, the female is close to him, and congratulates him on the removal of every chip which his bill sends through the air. While he rests, he appears to be speaking to her on the most tender subjects, and when fatigued, is at once assisted by her. In this manner, by the alternate exertions of each, the hole is dug and finished. They caress each other on the branches, climb about and around the tree with apparent delight, rattle with their bill against the tops of the dead branches, chase all their cousins the Red-heads, defy the Purple Grakles to enter their nest, feed plentifully on ants, beetles and larvae, cackling at intervals, and ere two weeks have elapsed, the female lays either four or six eggs, the whiteness and transparency of which are doubtless the delight of her heart. If to raise a numerous progeny may contribute to happiness, these Woodpeckers are in this respect happy enough, for they have two broods each season; and as this might induce you to imagine Woodpeckers extremely abundant in America, I may at once tell you that they are so.

Even in confinement, the Golden-winged Woodpecker never suffers its naturally lively spirit to droop. It feeds well, and by way of amusement, will continue to destroy as much furniture in a day as can well be mended by a different kind of workman in two. Therefore, kind reader, do not any longer believe that Woodpeckers, I mean those of America, are such stupid, forlorn, dejected and unprovided for beings, as they have hitherto been represented. In fact, I know not one of the seventeen species found in our extensive woods, that does not exhibit quite as much mirth and gaiety as the present bird. They are serviceable birds in many points of view, and therefore are seldom shot at, unless by idlers, their flesh, moreover, not being very savoury. They have ample range, and wherever they alight, there is to be found the food to which they at all times give decided preference.

The flight of this species is strong and prolonged, being performed in a straighter manner than that of any other of our Woodpeckers. They propel themselves by numerous beats of the wings, with short intervals of sailing, during which they scarcely fall from the horizontal. Their migrations, although partial, as many remain even in the middle districts during the severest winters, are performed under night, as is known by their note and the whistling of their wings, which are heard from the ground, although by no means so distinctly as when they fly from a tree or from the earth, when suddenly alarmed. When passing from one tree to another on wing, they also fly in a straight line, until within a few yards of the spot on which they intend to alight, when they suddenly raise themselves a few feet, and fasten themselves to the bark of the trunk by their claws and tail. If they intend to settle on a branch, which they as frequently do, they do not previously rise; but in either case, no sooner has the bird alighted, if it be not pursued or have suspicions of any object about it, than it immediately nods its head, and utters its well-known note, "Flicker." It easily moves sidewise on a small branch, keeping itself as erect as other birds usually do; but with equal ease does it climb by leaps along the trunk of trees or their branches, descend, and move sidewise or spirally, keeping at all times its head upwards, and its tail pressed against the bark as a support.

On the ground, where it frequently alights, it hops with great ease. This, however, it does merely to pick up a beetle, a caterpillar, a grain of corn dropt by a squirrel from the ear in the fields, or to enable it to examine the dead roots of trees, or the side of a prostrate log, from which it procures ants and other small insects. It is also fond of various fruits and berries. Apples, grapes, persimons and dogwood berries seem quite agreeable to it, and it does not neglect the young corn of the farmer's field. Even poke-berries or huckleberries answer its purpose at times, and during winter it is a frequenter of the corn-cribs.

In this species, as in a few others, there is a singular arrangement in the colouring of the feathers of the upper part of the head, which I conceive it necessary for me to state, that it may enable persons better qualified than myself to decide as to the reasons of such arrangement. The young of this species frequently have the whole upper part of the head tinged with red, which at the approach of winter disappears, when merely a circular line of that colour is to be observed on the hind part, becoming of a rich silky vermilion tint. The Hairy, Downy and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are subject to the same extraordinary changes, which, as far as I know, never reappear at any future period of their lives. I was at first of opinion that this change appeared only on the head of the male birds, but on dissection I found it equally affecting both sexes. I am induced to believe, that, in consequence of this, many young Woodpeckers of different species have been described and figured as forming distinct species themselves. I have shot dozens of young Woodpeckers in this peculiar state of plumage, which, on being shewn to other persons, were thought by them to be of different species from what the birds actually were. This occurrence is the more worthy of notice, as it is exhibited on all the species of this genus on the heads of which, when in full plumage, a very narrow line exists.

Raccoons and Black Snakes are dangerous enemies to this bird. The former frequently put one of their fore legs into the hole where it has nestled or retired to rest, and if the hole be not too deep, draw out the eggs and suck them, and frequently by the same means secure the bird itself. The Black Snake contents itself with the eggs or young. Several species of Hawks attack them on the wing, and as the Woodpeckers generally escape by making for a hole in the nearest tree, it is pleasing to see the disappointment of the Hawk, when, as it has just been on the point of seizing the terrified bird, the latter dives, as it were, into the hole. Should the Woodpecker not know of a hole near enough to afford it security, it alights on a trunk, and moves round it with such celerity as frequently to enable it to elude its pursuer.

Their flesh is esteemed good by many of the sportsmen of the Middle Districts, and is frequently eaten. Some are now and then exposed in the markets of New York and Philadelphia; but I look upon the flesh as very disagreeable, it having a strong flavour of ants.

The neck of this species is larger than that of any other with which I am acquainted, and consequently the skin of this bird is more easily pulled over the head, which it is difficult to do in the other species, on account of the slenderness of their neck, and the great size of the head.

Picus auratus, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 174.--Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 242.—Ch. Bonaparte, Synopsis of Birds of the United States, p. 44.

Gold-winged Woodpecker Lath. Synops. vol. ii. p. 597.—Wils. Americ. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 45. Pl. iii. fig. 1. Male.

Adult Male. Plate XXXVII. Fig. 1, 1, 1.

Bill slightly arched, strong, nearly as long as the head, compressed at the tip, which is a little abrupt; upper mandible convex on the sides, with acute, overlapping edges; lower mandible with acute, inflected edges, the dorsal outline nearly straight, a little convex towards the end. Nostrils basal, lateral, oval, partly covered by recumbent feathers. Head of ordinary size. Neck shortish. Body ovate. Feet short, rather robust; tarsus scutellate before, compressed; two toes before, and two behind, scutellate above; claws compressed, arched, acute.

Plumage rather compact and imbricated, blended on the head and neck. Wings longish, the third and fourth quills longest, the second much shorter, the first very small. Tail of ordinary length, rounded, consisting of ten broad feathers, worn to an elongated tip by being rubbed against the bark of trees.

Bill brown above and at the tip, light blue beneath. Iris light brown. Feet greyish-blue. Upper part of the head and hind neck light purplish-grey; a transverse band of scarlet on the lower part of the occiput. Upper parts generally light greenish-brown, spotted with black; the lower back white, the tail-coverts of the same colour, spotted with black. Primaries brownish-black, their shafts, as are those of all the large feathers, orange. Tail brownish-black. Sides of the head and fore neck light brownish-red, tinged with grey. A black streak along each side of the throat, and a lunated patch of the same across the fore part of the breast. The rest of the breast reddish-white, spotted with black, as are the lighter coloured abdomen and under tail-coverts. Under surface of the wings and tail of a fine rich yellow.

Length 1½ inches, extent of wings 16; bill along the ridge 1⅓, along the gap 1¾; tarsus 116, middle toe 1¼.

Adult Female. Plate XXXVII. Fig. 2, 2.

The female differs chiefly in wanting the black streaks on the throat, in having the lunulated spot on the breast smaller, and in being somewhat duller in the tints of the plumage generally.

Dimensions nearly the same.