Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/Woodpeckers and their Ways
|WOODPECKERS AND THEIR WAYS.|
By WILLIAM EVERETT CRAM.
WOODPECKERS as a class form one of the most striking and easily distinguished groups of birds, the entire family conforming to a certain type to a remarkable degree. Probably each of the three hundred species could be safely described as a vigorous, muscular, heavy-bodied bird, with long wings, close-fitting plumage, and a strong, stiletto-shaped beak. Their legs and feet, like those of the parrots, cuckoos, etc., formerly placed in the same order, are short and stout, with the outer toe turned backward parallel with the hind toe as an aid in climbing. In certain species, however, this outer toe is entirely wanting.
Their peculiar method of gaining a livelihood has developed a tongue perfectly adapted to their requirements; it is pointed and barbed at the tip for securing the larger insects, and is kept constantly coated with a mucous substance to which the smaller ones adhere. At the back of the mouth it divides, and passing each side of the neck at the base of the skull is carried up over the top of the head, where the two portions join and are inserted in the right nostril. In the common hairy woodpecker, and possibly some others, it curves downward, and is wound about the bony case which protects the right eye, the latter projecting more than the left for its accommodation. This double bow enables the bird to shoot forward and contract the barbed tip with wonderful velocity, while the mucus is applied each time from two large glands at each side of the throat.
In the autumn, when the last generation of aphides spreads itself over every leaf and twig in the forest, woodpeckers may frequently be seen engaged to all appearances in licking up these diminutive insects from their resting places, their long tongues giving them a decided advantage over other birds in this pursuit, for woodpeckers are not the only birds that find aphides palatable in spite of their small size—not only the warblers, but purple finches and others, generally supposed to be fruit-eaters, apparently depending to a certain extent on this delicate fare.
The family colors are black and white and red in sharply contrasting patterns, though some members of the group that have taken to gathering a portion of their food on the ground appear to have adopted the more inconspicuous browns and greens for protection. The common golden-winged woodpecker is a case in point, a bird which I fancy occupies much the same place in this country that the green woodpecker does in England, though the latter is probably nowhere as abundant or familiar as our species. Both are
genuine enough woodpeckers, but without the conservative habits of the majority of their race. The typical woodpecker, large or small, spends the greater part of its time clinging to the bark of a tree, by preference a dead one, hitching himself along by short stages, usually ascending the tree by a spiral course in order to survey as much of its surface as possible, and whenever he suspects the presence of an insect beneath the bark his sharp bill enables him to dig through bark, sapwood, and everything, until his victim is finally cornered at the extremity of its hole, and is drawn forth impaled on the barbed point of the bird's tongue, or held fast by the sticky substance which covers it. And while so engaged the bird's black-and-white plumage is really not so conspicuous as might be expected, at a distance the colors appearing to blend in such a manner as to give the effect of dark gray or ash color, which matches admirably with the surface of the majority of tree trunks, especially in the shadow. But the flicker gets a comparatively small portion of its food in this manner. Sometimes, it is true, he may be seen pecking away busily enough on a prostrate log or decaying stump in the pastures, and he is said to render valuable assistance to the fruit growers by digging out the borers from the trunks of peach and plum trees at every opportunity, but he prefers the less laborious process of gathering his insect food from the surface of the ground like other birds, probably digging some of it from the turf with his bill. It is said that in some parts of the country they have learned the trick of flattening themselves as traps on top of ant hills with extended tongue which the ants seize upon as something eatable and are drawn in and devoured by the dozen.
Now, it would hardly be safe for a woodpecker of almost any other species with black-and-white plumage to follow any such, but the flicker when at rest only shows a subdued brown banded with black, tiger fashion, in a way that might possibly suggest the shadows of grass stems on dry turf or the fallen branch of a tree, the general effect being not unlike that of the plumage of the meadow lark in a similar position. Many of the concealed feathers, however, exhibit the brilliant black-and-white pattern characteristic of the tribe, and when the bird takes flight, as if aware that concealment was no longer possible, he flashes out the full glory of his wings and tail, that, together with the patch of white on his back, hidden until now by his folded wings, make him conspicuous as long as he is in sight. The scarlet of his crest, although bright enough, would hardly attract attention at any distance.
Now, in Kansas and westward the flickers have wings and tail lined with red instead of yellow, and where the two species come together it is said to be not uncommon to find specimens with one wing lined with red and the other with gold, and the tail feathers divided in a corresponding manner.
The green woodpecker of England, as might be expected in a climate where the leaves and grass are not burned brown at midsummer, wears Lincoln green like the foresters of old, who probably
knew him well and respected him as a bird that, like themselves, refused to live in confinement, and was only contented when in the greenwood.
Like the flicker, it has received a dozen or twenty common names by which it is known among the country folk, and among them highhole, yaffle, and woodwall at least are common to both this bird and our own species, which appears to have been confounded with the other by the early settlers. Woodwall I have never known to be applied to our bird outside of a certain limited district in southern New Hampshire, where it is almost exclusively known by that name. He is evidently a bird of a good deal of intelligence, though undeniably cranky at times. He is quick to know where he is not molested, and, once he has convinced himself that the surroundings are not likely to prove dangerous, will take up his abode perhaps in an apple tree a few yards from the house, and will return summer after summer as long as he is allowed to remain in possession. For the last ten or fifteen years, perhaps longer, a pair have nested in this manner in an apple tree on the farm where I write, and have succeeded in bringing up a promising brood each season without serious mishap. When the tree they formerly occupied was cut down, they merely moved to another still nearer the house, and made their hole in a large branch hardly a dozen feet from the ground. They were obliged to through the green sapwood at first, and then through a inches of dry but extremely hard wood beneath, before reaching the decayed heart of the branch, but their bills were equal to the task, and they soon had a gourd-shaped cavern some eighteen inches in depth, with the doorway opening to the south. They seldom exhibit much impatience about going to housekeeping each spring, and it is usually pretty well along in May before they have done their spring house-cleaning. This consists merely in clearing out the bottom of the hole and perhaps enlarging it slightly. There is nothing that really deserves the name of nest, the eggs being laid on the rotten wood or loose chips at the bottom, after the manner of the woodpeckers.
The birds are rather quiet, but not at all timid during the nesting season, coming and going at all hours of the day, quite regardless as to whether any one is watching them or not. But soon after the eggs are hatched there may be heard a low murmur issuing from the opening of the nest, which increases in loudness day by day until it is a murmur no longer, but a kind of stifled crying and squalling, which rises to a chorus of shrieks on the arrival of the old birds, or, in fact, at the approach of any one or anything, the youngsters taking it for granted that any sound that reaches them in their seclusion must necessarily mean food, and each endeavors to drown the clamor of all the others.
After a while the parents try to entice them out into the daylight by clinging to the branch and holding some delicate morsel before the entrance, whereupon the most enterprising, or possibly the hungriest, youngster scrambles up the wall of the nursery and, thrusting out his head, seizes the food and falls back aghast at his own boldness. They are apt to be slow about leaving the nest, and are generally fully fledged before they finally gather courage to crawl forth and cling to the branches, shrieking hysterically for their parents to come to their rescue. After a day or two of such behavior they grow braver, and learn to accompany their parents about the orchard, and at last away to the pastures, seldom showing themselves about the house after they have fairly learned to fly. Being a heavy-bodied bird, the flicker is only too often regarded as a game bird, though his flesh is, to say the least, tough, and here is where his intelligence becomes most apparent, for it certainly looks as though these birds learned to know at sight those persons who are in the way of shooting them, for they are almost invariably regarded by these gunners as about the most difficult birds to approach in existence, though others do not regard them in that light, and for my own part I certainly have hundreds of opportunities for shooting them every season if I were so inclined.
The downy woodpecker perhaps comes next to the flicker in abundance, for, although never to be seen in any great numbers, one or two of them may usually be found wherever there are decaying trees for them to work upon. Nor do they depend entirely upon dying trees for their nesting grounds, as one may frequently be seen working his way up the stem of a young fruit tree or sapling whose smooth bark would hardly be supposed capable of furnishing concealment for the smallest insect. Next to the apple tree, the elm is perhaps his favorite, the rough bark of large ones allowing him to move about between the ridges and dig away beneath the loose scales to his heart's content. He is probably capable of spending more time on a single tree than any of the others of his family. After having finished with the trunk he will carefully go over each branch from tip to base, never hurrying, but acting as if he knew that he had the
whole of eternity to do it in, and perfectly contented to spend half an hour on a space that he could cover with one of his wings. He is usually accompanied by other birds, for birds are not scattered evenly about the woods at any season of the year, but more in company or flocks of half a dozen or a dozen different species, brought together apparently for society's sake, and following any temporary leader from tree to tree.
Downy, however, seldom quits his work when the others see fit to depart, but keeps pegging away by himself until other birds come up, attracted, I fancy, by his rapping, to linger about in his company for a few minutes, and then off again as the whim seizes them. Like the majority of birds, the downy woodpecker is apt to be more in evidence during the spring and fall migration than at other times, but is never entirely absent, and often appears more than usually numerous immediately after a cold wave in midwinter. At this season he sleeps snugly in a hole cut out of the wood for the occasion, and evidently finds the getting up in the morning the most disagreeable part of it, for he seldom shows himself until long after the sun has begun to melt away the frost from the south side of the trees. He is most active now at midday, frequenting southern hillsides, where the air is warmest and the brown leaves show between the drifts, and where he is sure to have the company of other birds if there are any in the neighborhood. He is not afraid of the cold, however, and may often be seen at sunset hard at work on the exposed side of a tree, while the north wind ruffles up his feathers and the frost makes the wood resound with reports like pistol shots. But just as the last spark of sunlight dies out among the tree tops he hurries off to his bedroom with an occasional shrill chirrup for good night, and stows himself away for a good sixteen hours of sleep. In May the pair construct a nesting hole in a dead branch, usually well up toward the top of the tree they have chosen. They are less given to occupying the same nest for successive seasons than are the flickers, and the abandoned holes, as well as their winter apartments, serve excellently for nesting places for bluebirds and tree swallows, and others of similar habits. During the heat of summer their habits are the same as at other seasons, though they keep more in the shadow of the leaves, and rise earlier in the morning, doing a large part of their sleeping at midday.
The hairy woodpecker is much larger and heavier than the downy, but his color and markings are the same, except that his outer tail feathers are pure white, not barred with black, as in the other species. They are much less abundant than formerly, some years being decidedly rare. Ten years ago, or even less, they were often seen climbing over woodpiles in farmyards on sunny days in the winter. Their habits are much like those of the downy woodpecker, and their cries, though louder, are rather similar. There seems to be no special reason why they should decrease in numbers, for they appear perfectly willing to put up with the conditions of a settled country, and are much less subject to the persecutions of the youthful sportsman than are their larger cousins the flickers.
The arctic three-toed woodpeckers are slightly larger, and are peculiar in having dispensed entirely with the real hind toe, being provided with only three toes on each foot, two before and one behind. The males are easily distinguished by a square patch of yellow on the back of the head.
This species is decidedly uncommon in this latitude, and one may watch patiently for years without so much as getting a glimpse of one, and when at last they do make their appearance it is not by the hundred, as is apt to be the way with northern birds when they see fit to visit us, but scattered singly about the woods and swamps in a manner hardly calculated to attract attention. This is about their southern limit though curiously enough a species almost identical with this one inhabits the forests of Guiana, while the intermediate region can show nothing in the least like it.
The coloring of the yellow-bellied woodpecker is somewhat more complicated, the white being partly replaced by yellow, and the throat and top of the head crimson. Autumn birds are frequently seen without any red whatever, and with the entire plumage so thickly streaked and spotted as to give an effect of dull grayish brown in the distance. They make their appearance with considerable regularity in the spring, about the middle of April or a little before, singly or in pairs, and seldom in any great numbers. They are decidedly rare throughout the summer, and are seldom very abundant in the fall except in certain seasons, when they outnumber all the other woodpeckers put together, and may be seen in families of half a dozen or more, running about the hickory and oak trees, which appear to be their favorites. Being much more restless and impatient than the downy, they seldom linger long in a place, but keep flying from tree to tree, pecking here and there as suits their fancy, until, finding an especially attractive spot or decayed branch, they settle down for a few moments of hard work, and manage to do considerable execution in a comparatively short time. They are commonly called sapsuckers, and are supposed to injure fruit trees by drilling little cup-shaped holes in the bark in order to drink sap which flows from them. There is no doubt that they make the holes, sometimes thousands of them in a single tree, but there seems to be little evidence that the trees are ever injured by the process, at all events not enough to offset the advantage received from the destruction of borers and other insects.
The red-headed woodpecker is probably the most generally known and widely distributed species in this country, though rare in New England except, perhaps, in the more southwestern portion. I have seen but two specimens in New Hampshire, the first in the southern part of the State within a few miles of the coast. One hot June day he came flying across the fields and, alighting against the trunk of an apple tree, began hammering away at the bark in true woodpecker style, then, descending to the ground, appeared to search for insects in the plowed earth beneath the tree. After a few minutes he took wing once more and steered off toward the south. Half a dozen years later I saw one flying among the mountains near Lake Winnepesaukee, but had no opportunities for observing it. They were said to be quite abundant in southern New England in the autumn of 1881, presumably migrating visitors from the West, where they are much more common. Like the flicker, this species exhibits a decided fondness for fruits and grain of various sorts, and is generally considered a destructive bird on this account.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, now confined to the Gulf States and lower Mississippi Valley, is generally admitted to be the finest representative of his race. He is nearly two feet in length, with a scarlet crest and white stripes down each side of his neck. A considerable portion of his wings is also white. In the Southern swamps he still carries on the woodpecker trade on a scale in keeping with his size. The alacrity with which he can hack to pieces the decaying trunk of a tree is said to be simply incredible to one who has never had the good fortune to see him at work. The pileated woodpecker, or logcock, is somewhat smaller, with less white on the wings. Formerly abundant throughout the country, this species has retreated and diminished in numbers with the clearing off of the old original forest growth, and is now only to be found in the most secluded woods and mountain regions, and is nowhere common. A few pairs are still said to linger in the western parts of Massachusetts, and I have found unmistakable evidence of their presence in the newly chiseled trunks of dead pines on some of the New Hampshire mountains, but as yet have been singularly unfortunate in never having seen a living specimen.