Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hairy Housepecker and Co.

Hairy Woodpecker photo by David Powell

Aah! A beautiful spring morning, about dawn actually. Jemez locals know only too well how peacefully quiet a mountain home can be at that time of the morning. It was perfect for a little extra snoozing, resting my weary body after a long hike the previous day. I snuggled deeper under the covers. Sheer bliss!

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

I tried to ignore the familiar sound, hoping it would go away. No such luck. Apparently my friend, Hairy, was an early riser. It sounded like he was going to drill right through the walls and into my bedroom! Maybe even into the side of my skull! In the spring, the ever increasing daylight brings out the lust in all things feathered. Male songbirds sing to attract a mate, while raptors engage in elaborate courtship flights.

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

But woodpeckers . . . well they impress the ladies by drumming! Obviously, the biggest noise is most impressive and the greatest measure of a male’s physical prowess, as well as his ability to provide for a nesting female and their subsequent progeny. I rose from my bed to see what was the object of such intense pounding. Sneaking quietly around the corner, all trees seemed to be devoid of Hairy. Then, I looked up. Surely, he was not actually attacking the house!

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

And there he was! Clinging to the protective screening on the metal chimney, this magnificent specimen was loudly proclaiming his virility, for he had discovered the ultimate magnification device - the metal stovepipe of my chimney top. I smiled as I chased him off, knowing that he would return to his drum of choice soon after I disappeared. He and others of his kind had been feasting on the suet cakes and black oil sunflower seeds that adorned various trees near the house all winter long, so they were quite familiar with this territory. The Hairy Woodpecker is the most frequent visitor in the Jemez, followed by the larger Northern Flicker, and the smaller Downy Woodpecker, a lookalike of the Hairy. During the winter, many woodpecker species comfortably coexist in mixed feeding flocks; however, come spring with its attendant raging hormones, battles ensue. Dueling drums reverberate throughout the forest. In the end, only the most dominant male and his mate remain for the breeding season, while others have to settle for less desirable nesting territories.

Woodpeckers have particularly stiff tails that enable them to balance on the sides of trees, and specially adapted feet with two forward- and two backward-facing toes that allow them to cling to the sides of trees. As a group, these birds fill several valuable niches in nature. Primarily insectivorous, they use their exceptionally long tongues to probe for insects in the bark and crevices of trees; some species also eat a variety of fruits and seeds, and occasionally even forage on crops such as corn. They rely on a number of adaptations to locate food, including searching visually, and probing with their tongues. They also find insects within the wood by listening. Most woodpeckers also cache, or store food during times of abundance for later retrieval. One species, the Acorn Woodpecker, drills regularly spaces holes for food storage in a granary tree, placing a single acorn in each hole. They are a communal, cooperative breeder, with groups of birds filling, using, and defending the granaries.

All woodpeckers are cavity nesters, excavating their own cavities in living or dead wood. A pair will often create two cavities, one for nesting, and one for roosting in the fall. In fact, these birds are the primary excavators of nest burrows in the forest. Abandoned woodpecker cavities provide important nesting habitat for other species that lack the ability to excavate. This includes many species of small owls such as the diminutive Flammulated Owl, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the Western Screech-Owl. Other birds that utilize these cavities include Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Violet-Green Swallows, and even Mountain Chickadees.

However, even an extremely beneficial species can be annoying on occasion, especially when they are engulfed in a hormone-induced noisemaking frenzy, not to mention the extra holes drilled along the eaves of the roof. Bam! I looked the other way, went back inside, and silently welcomed Hairy and Harriet for the summer.

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