Tag Archives: bird

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus varius

General: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) are the small woodpeckers responsible for the neat rows of sap wells found drilled into trees across much of the southern and eastern United States and central Canada. These striking black and white birds can usually be found perched along tree trunks lapping up sap. Sapsucker populations are healthy and stable, earning the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker the classification of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Description: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are small relative to other species of woodpeckers. They reach a mature length of 7” to 8.75” and weight of 1.5oz. to 1.9oz. They can be identified by their black and white, boldly patterned plumage (in scallops across the back,) yellow or buff-white undersides, red caps, and long white patches on the sides of folded wings (that open to a wing span of 13.5” to 15.7”1.) Additionally, Sapsuckers have white rumps, black eyelines and two white stripes stretching from the eyes and sides of the bill toward the black bib on the chest. Males differ from females by the presence of a red chin and throat, both of which appear pale or entirely white on females. Juvenile Sapsuckers have buff and dusky black barring on their backs with pale underparts and white rumps. Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers have straight thick bills that act as chisels, brush-tipped tongues used for lapping up sap and catching insects, rigid, pointed tails, and crown feathers on the backs of their heads, which they raise to form peaks.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers behave in a similar manner to other woodpeckers. Their flight consists of rises and falls, a swooping pattern used by other woodpeckers. They hop along tree trunks, leaning back against their supporting tail feathers when feeding or tending to sap wells, an activity that takes up at least half their time2. Their communicative behaviors are similar to those executed by other woodpecker species. Mating displays consist of lifting the head to reveal throat patches, chases, and tapping. Aggression is expressed through raised crests and ruffled tail and throat feathers, head swaying, and raised tails and bills.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers produce a number of sounds. A kwee-urk is associated with breeding as well as territory defense. Threatened birds may also shrill. Breeding pairs also create quirk noises to strengthen their bonds. These noises are produced by scratching on trees. Repetitive week-week and wurp-wurp sounds are made between pairs or parents and juveniles. Excited birds make a nasal, mewing c-waan3. Like all woodpeckers, Sapsuckers create the unmistakable drumming noise while hammering against trees.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers have been known to live to nearly 8 years old; however, in the wild they live an average of 6.5 years4.

Habitat: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers live in hardwood, mixed, and coniferous forests, at elevations up to 6500’.

In the spring and summer, they establish breeding grounds in young or regenerating forests that offer ample opportunities to bore sap wells. Nesting often occurs in groves of small trees, such as aspens. During the winter, Sapsuckers relocate to open hardwood or mixed woodlands. While Sapsuckers will inhabit a greater variety of habitats in the winter than in the spring or summer, they will not settle in an area that is entirely coniferous during winter months5.

Location: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers may be found throughout the central, northern and eastern United States and into central Canada. Sapsuckers are the only species of woodpecker in the eastern United States that is entirely migratory. Some Sapsuckers may stay in their breeding areas throughout the winter, especially in southern parts of their range, but most populations relocate to winter habitats, ranging from south of New England and the Great Lakes to southern parts of the United States, Mexico, the West Indies and parts of Central America. It is common for females to migrate farther than males. Sapsuckers have been found in Iceland, Britain and Ireland; however, Sapsuckers are not native to these geographic areas and these sightings are attributed to accidental relocation6.

Diet: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers can often be spotted sitting along tree trunks feeding from their sap wells. They harvest sap by boring two distinct types of holes in over 1,000 species of trees and woody plants (although they prefer trees that have sap with high sugar concentrations, such as maple, hickory and birch trees.) They select trees that are alive and actively producing sap, a behavior that sets them apart from other species of woodpeckers who tend to prefer dead wood.

Sapsucker’s systematic drilling starts in the spring, when narrow circular wells are bored deep into the trunk, providing access to sap flowing upward through the tree’s xylem (which sapsuckers reach by inserting their long bills.) The second type of well is shallower than the first and rectangular in shape, drilled into the phloem of the tree. These wells provide access to sap as it runs down from leaves once the tree has bloomed. Sapsuckers lap-up sap leaking from these wells. Because these secondary holes are shallow, they must be continually maintained with fresh drilling so sap can continue to flow. This sap has a sugar content of over 10%. New holes are drilled year round in both breeding and winter territories, and are placed in a new row above or in line with existing holes.

Sapsuckers also feed on insects, such as ants, spiders and moths, suet, berries and fruit. They hop along the ground to forage for insects, but also catch flying insects while sitting at the ends of tree branches, dig for insects beneath tree bark and consume insects caught in sap. Sapsuckers may be found in orchards, which provide opportunities for harvesting sap and access to fruit.

Reproduction: Before mating in the spring, Sapsuckers exhibit playful courting displays, as one bird chases another in flight and across tree trunks and branches. As courting pairs stand facing each other on a branch, with ruffled feathers and raised crests, they swing their heads and emit winnowing sounds. These pairs also participate in ritual tapping, in which courting birds interact with echoing taps. These behaviors strengthen bonds and create mating pairs that may last for several breeding seasons.

Male Sapsuckers are often responsible for choosing nesting sites and excavating nests, usually in the same species of trees used for drilling sap wells (such as birch, maple, aspen, and elm.) They show a preference for living trees hosting a fungus that softens the trees interior (making excavating a nest easier.) These nest cavities may be used for up to seven consecutive years. Entrances are approximately 1.5” in diameter and the cavity itself is around 10” in depth and lined only with woodchips.

Sapsuckers have one brood a year, consisting of 4 to 6 white eggs that are approximately 1” in length. The eggs are incubated by both adults for 10 to 13 days, although males spend more time incubating the eggs, especially at night7. The chicks are born naked and blind, with gray beaks. After 8 days, the chicks open their eyes8. During the nestling period of 25 to 30 days, parents must feed the chicks nine times an hour to ensure proper development, taking turns bringing the chicks sap and insects. Parents mix sawdust with droppings in the nest and remove them, to keep nest cavities sanitary9.

Juveniles fledge in mid-summer and gradually acquire their adult coloration throughout their first fall (with red plumage appearing first) and winter (when the black and white signature pattering appears on their heads and chests10.)

Notes of Interest: Sapsucker wells provide feeding opportunities for at least 35 other species of birds and mammals, attracted to the sap and/or insects11. One particular bird species attracted to the sap flows is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. This hummingbird’s reliance on the sap is so integral to their survival that they coordinate their spring migration with that of the sapsucker. Other species that use the sapsucker wells are bats and procupines12.

1. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/id
2. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/id
3. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Sphyrapicus_varius/
4. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Sphyrapicus_varius/
5. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/id
6. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/yellow-bellied-sapsucker/
7. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Sphyrapicus_varius/
8. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/id
9. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Sphyrapicus_varius/
10. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/yellow-bellied-sapsucker/
11. http://www.houstonaudubon.org/
12. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/id


Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescen

Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescen


The Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, are the smallest and most common woodpecker of North America. Similar in appearance to the Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpeckers can be distinguished by their diminutive size. Their stable and numerous populations offer frequent opportunities for backyard sightings, mixing advantageously with other bird flocks for protection and food sourcing. These agile foragers may be spotted among tree branches and tall brush or at a backyard feeder.


Downy Woodpeckers are known for their bold black and white coloration, similar to that of the Hairy Woodpecker, and their small size. Their bodies, measuring 5.5”-6.5” in length and up to 1 oz. in weight, are a classic woodpecker shape, with a “straight, chisel-like bill, blocky head, wide shoulders, and straight-backed posture”1. Relative to their body size, the bill of the Downy seems small in comparison to the longer bill of the Hairy Woodpecker. The Seven subspecies of the Downy Woodpecker have been identifiedwingspan ranges in size from 9.5” to 11.5”. The Downy has a white breast and black and white checkered wings and back, with a broad, white strip running down the center of the back. The head is striped in black and white. Males may be identified by the red patch on the nape of the neck., sometimes referred to as a cap. The outside tail feathers are predominantly white with some black markings present. The tail feathers are stiff and are used to brace the woodpecker’s body when boring holes.

Due to the expansive territory of this species, physical variations have developed. Seven subspecies of the Downy Woodpecker have been identified, differing mainly in size and also color. Birds living in northern environments typically grow largest, and western varieties are darker overall with less white on the wings. Downy Woodpeckers of the southeast may be identified by their smaller size and grayer undersides. Birds living along the Pacific coast typically display less white spotting on wing coverts and secondaries (a type of feather found on the wing,) while those living east of the Rockies have highly developed white spotting2. Downy Woodpeckers in the Pacific Northwest are known for their dusky coloration on the back and underside3.

Downy Woodpeckers, on average, live one to two years due to a high mortality rate in the first years of life. However, organizations have monitored birds in the wild living upwards of twelve years.


The Downy Woodpecker exhibits a variety of behaviors that distinguish them as a unique species as well as identify them as a member of the greater woodpecker category. In flight, Downy Woodpeckers use an undulating flight pattern typical of many woodpecker species4, using a rhythm of quick wingbeats alternating with wings folding against the body. However, when moving along tree branches, Downy Woodpeckers swiftly move horizontally and downwards along branches with greater agility than other woodpecker species. As a defensive stance, a Downy Woodpecker will fan the tail feathers, and raise their head while jerking the bill back and forth. A courtship ritual consists of both males and females darting gracefully between trees, fluttering their wings softly in a butterfly-like display5.


Three distinct noises are associated with the Downy Woodpecker. The first, and probably most often associated with this species, is the drumming noise. A common misconception associated with the The male downy woodpecker may be identified by the red patch on the nape of the neckwoodpecker is that this loud, rapid drumming is an attempt to bore for insects. This particular noise is actually used by the Downy to claim territory, maintain dominance or attract a mate. This particular drumming is steady and fast, approximately 17 beats a second. When excavating for food or to create a nest, the drum of the Downy tends to be slower, quieter and more deliberate in nature. The Downy also produces a short string of high notes lasting around two seconds. This shrill, descending whinny is made during mating season by both sexes6. The third noise is a high, short note made in excitement and called a pik.


Downy Woodpeckers are non-migratory birds preferring year-round residence in deciduous forests, living in woodlands among trees, brush, long grasses and wildflowers. However, they are also commonly found in city parks, suburban neighborhoods, orchards, and vacant lots. As a species, they are adaptable and have been known to thrive in forested areas in secondary, young growth. Downy Woodpeckers are typically arboreal, but at times may hop along the ground foraging for food.

In their natural habitats, Downy Woodpeckers are at the mercy of several predatory species, including the American Kestrel, several species of hawks, rat snakes, and squirrels. They are at risk in-flight and their eggs and fledglings are at risk within the nests.


Downy Woodpeckers reside in habitats across North America, excluding Hawaii and Mexico and areas in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, southern California, northwestern Alaska and northeastern Canada7.


The Downy Woodpecker is an acrobatic forager, spending much of its time searching for food in trees. Wood boring insects and larvae make up 75% of the Downy Woodpecker’s diet. Males and females forage separately, with males spending most of their time on smaller, more advantageous branches and females being relegated to larger branches. Downy Woodpeckers are also fond of fruit, seeds, sap, millets, peanut butter, and suet, and may be found at backyard feeders, including hummingbird feeders8.


The Downy Woodpecker nest for the first time in the spring following their birth and tend to have one brood a year; although, these birds have been known to have two broods in southern habitats where food supplies are available for longer periods of time9. The Downy Woodpecker can lay three to eight white eggs per brood (approximately ¾” each) in a hollow cavity in a tree, on a bed of woodchips. Selecting a dead deciduous tree or dead portion of a tree leaning away from the main vertical, both male and female Downy Woodpeckers spend one to three weeks boring a nest with a1-1.5” entrance on the bottom side of the limb (although they have also been known to nest within walls.) The nests are usually 6-12” deep, widening at the bottom to accommodate the eggs and bird. A 12 day incubation period is followed by an 18 to 21 day nestling period10. Out of the 3 to 8 fledglings, on average only 1 to 2 will survive the first year of life11.

Woodpecker Damage

Can a woodpecker cause damage to a home or property? The answer is yes. In the Northeast, one species of woodpecker in particular is responsible for most home damage. That woodpecker, the Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, can be identified by the yellow or salmon coloration under the wings and tail and the tan/white underside with black spots. The Downy Woodpecker is less likely to cause damage to a home but still may. Other woodpecker species responsible for home damage include the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied woodpecker, Hairy woodpecker and Red-headed woodpecker12. Damage occurs due to drumming on materials or boring holes in materials for several reasons: establishing territorial dominance, “singing” to mates or excavation for feeding or nesting. This drumming may sound like a rhythmic hammering noise. However, loud, rapid drumming is often for reasons other than feeding and nesting, as the drumming associated with these activities is quieter and more intentional. Woodpeckers may select materials such as wooden shingles, siding and fencing (specifically cedar, pine and redwood,) many species of trees, gutters, wood eaves, synthetic stucco, chimney caps or light posts.

This damage can and should be prevented or stopped using several techniques. Action should be taken quickly as woodpeckers become territorial once established. Selecting construction materials that do not provide ideal boring opportunities for woodpeckers, such as plywood or Masonite, may prevent damage entirely. You may also use visual repellants (hawk silhouettes and mobiles or owl effigies) or loud noises to scare woodpeckers or deter them from frequenting the area. Mirrors, reflective strips that move with a breeze, pinwheels, or metallic pie tins have also been shown to be effective in scaring woodpeckers and can be placed near the site of damage to scare woodpeckers. If holes already exist in homes or trees, it is important to repair them to prevent attracting new woodpeckers to the area or from further damage or infestation. Cover holes with a material to prevent further damage (material options include metal flashing, netting or hardware cloth.) If the damage exists on a tree, burlap may be wrapped around the damaged area to prevent further damage. If a nest has been excavated, consider waiting until the fledglings have left the nest (usually midsummer) to plug the hole. Keep in mind that certain species of woodpeckers only attack diseased or damaged trees so it is important to determine if additional problems exist and to treat appropriately. If damage has occurred in the eaves of a home, you may attach netting from the edge of the eave to the house to eliminate access to the affected area. You may also deter woodpeckers by eliminating the noise-making material they have selected to drum on by filling in any hollow areas that may allow an echo or placing padding behind the material. If the cause of drumming is an infestation, it is important to take appropriate steps to eliminate the invading pest. Providing the woodpecker with an alternative food source, such as a suet feeder placed in the yard away from the home, may prove effective in deterring a woodpecker from attacking an infested area (however, avoid using suet during warmer months as suet may adhere to a bird’s plumage.) Lastly, you may try providing alternative nesting areas for woodpeckers trying to excavate a nest on your property. Manufactured nest boxes, made similar in size with similar entries to natural nests, may provide woodpeckers an alternative to excavating13.

*While products exist such as Tanglefoot Pest Control, Roost-No-More, and Bird Stop, and claim to deter birds from using an area by creating a sticky, undesirable surface, please reconsider using these measures. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these products may adhere to “a bird’s plumage, impairing its ability to fly and stay warm”14. Additionally, these products may stain or cause a surface to discolor.


1.  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker

2.  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/downy-woodpecker/

3.  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/downy-woodpecker/

4.  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker

5.  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker

6.  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker

7.  http://www.nps.gov/shen/naturescience/downy-woodpecker.htm

8.  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker

9.  http://www.nps.gov/shen/naturescience/downy-woodpecker.htm






Works Cited 










Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus Pileatus

Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus Pileatus


Once you have seen the Pileated Woodpecker in the wild, watched it climb trees and fly through the forest you will always be able to pileated woodpecker in a tree hunting insectsidentify it. I know of no other bird that size and with that silhouette. As far as woodpeckers go, this is the largest North American woodpecker there is. Like other woodpeckers, its excavating plays a crucial role in many forest ecosystems in North America. A diverse array of other animals use its cavities for shelter and nesting.

Pileated Woodpeckers excavate large nests in the cavities of dead trees. Females lay approximately 1–6 white eggs. Incubation is approximately 15-18 days. The chicks are born naked and helpless. They fledge in about 26-28 days

Their call is a loud cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk. It is very similar to the Northern Flicker.


The Pileated Woodpecker Adults are 16” to 19” long with a wingspan of 26” to 30” and weigh 8 to 12 oz. They are almost crow sized. It is best recognized by its large, dull black body, red crest on the head and a white line down the sides of the throat. The males have a red line from the bill to the throat, in adult females these are black. In flight the wings show pale bases to primaries on upper-wing and entirely white under-wing covert.

Pileated WoodpeckerHabitat: Pileated Woodpeckers inhabit deciduous and coniferous forests with mature stands of trees. They can be found in suburban areas and farmland with stands of trees. I live in a small Upstate New York town. The pictures are of a bird that was on a neighbor’s maple tree digging for ants and grubs.


Pileated Woodpecker’s territory ranges from eastern North America to the Gulf coast, the Great Lakes, the boreal forests of Canada, and parts of the Pacific coast.


Pileated Woodpeckers are year round residents of their territories.


Pileated Woodpeckers eat insects, carpenter ants, wood-boring beetle larvae and to a lesser extent fruits, and nuts. They often chip out large and roughly rectangular holes in trees while searching out insects


USGS website

Gambel’s Quail – Callipepla Gambelii

General: Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) are plump, volleyball shaped birds whose preference for remaining on the ground stems from their inability to fly fast or for extended periods of time. These social birds reside in desert habitats of the American southwest and can be found hiding amongst shrubbery and dense, varied desert vegetation. A popular game bird, Gambel’s Quail populations are healthy because of reproductive success. They are categorized as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Description: Gambel’s Quail are plump, round birds with short, square tails and wings, stout necks, and petite heads and bills. They are best known for their comma-shaped plume that sits atop both males’ and females’ heads, although males’ plumes tend to be fuller. They reach a mature length of just under 10” and weight of 5.5 oz. to 7 oz, and have a wingspan of 13.5” to almost 14.5”1.

Gambel’s Quail have chestnut/gray bodies, olive wings, cream bellies and white or cream markings. Their richly patterned plumage provides camouflage from predators. Quail living in areas with greater rainfall tend to be darker and more vivid overall. Sexual dimorphism is also evident. Males have black faces, necks and patches on their breasts, fuller darker plumes, and are generally more striking than females, who tend to be grayer with thinner plumes and no black markings. Juveniles are mottled in gray and brown and have miniature head plumes.

Gambel’s Quail are known to hybridize with California Quails as well as Scaled Quails, although it is not common2.

Although Gambel’s Quail are diurnal, they rest during the heat of midday in shady areas. In cooler temperatures, quail tend to be active for longer periods of time. These social birds spend much of their time walking in groups, called coveys, of 12 or more birds3. They are fast runners and tend to remain on the ground. They only fly when necessary, in short, explosive bursts but prefer to lay motionless and camouflaged to escape from predators.

Gambel’s Quail live in coveys that generally contain a mature pair and up to 16 young4. These coveys have specific home ranges that they do not defend; rather covey’s home ranges tend to overlap.

Gambel’s Quail communicate with a number of calls. In addition to clucking and chattering, they emit a loud, high pitched “ka-KAA-ka,”5 and a plaintive qua-el6.

Gambel’s Quail live, on average, 7.4 years in the wild7.

Habitat: Gambel’s Quail may be found in hot deserts, thickets, mesquite springs, mountain foothills, river valleys, shrublands, grasslands, plains, and fields throughout the American Southwest. They prefer areas with brush and diverse vegetation and to be in close proximity to a water source, although they have minimal, if any, free water requirements8. Areas with dense desert shrubbery and trees offer shade and protection to Gambel’s Quail during the day and a place to roost at night. Predators within their native habitats include snakes, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and birds of prey.

Gambel’s Quail do not migrate and their annual movements typically do not exceed 1.5 miles.

Location: Gambel’s Quail are found in desert thickets and shrublands9 in the southwestern U.S., especially in Arizona. Populations may also be found in parts of Mexico, Texas, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and California. There are small, non-native populations living in Hawaii, introduced beginning in 192810.

Diet: Gambel’s Quail are group foragers and feed twice a day, moving slowly along the ground in the morning and afternoon. Approximately 90% of their diet consists of plant matter, which they scratch up from beneath vegetation. They also consume seeds and leaves year round. Gambel’s Quail will eat insects during the spring and early summer, while partaking in reproductive activities. They also eat fruit, berries, and cacti during certain seasons and in certain geographic areas11.

Reproduction: Gambel’s Quail reach sexual maturity by one year of age, breed once annually and are generally considered monogamous. However, females have been observed leaving their young with the male in order to find a new mate and have a new brood. Reproductive success is affected mainly by two factors: temperature and rainfall. During years of above average temperatures and greater than normal rainfall, these birds experience reproductive success and, therefore, population growth (due in part to increased plant growth and food supplies.) These ideal breeding conditions oppose the usual dry, arid habitat of the Gambel’s Quail.

To attract their mates, male Gambel’s Quail give small offerings of food to females. Studies have shown that males who exhibit faster rates of food offering, also called “tidbitting,” tend to have greater reproductive success.

Females tend to choose nesting sites that are hidden or in a protected place on the ground, although quail nests can be located up to nearly 30’ off the ground if conditions allow. These nests are shallow and broad, often measuring 5” to 7” wide and are lined with feathers, leaves, or vegetation.

Between 10 to 12 smooth white eggs are laid, camouflaged with brown splotches. During dry years, clutches tend to be smaller. Female Gambel’s Quail do the majority of incubation, lasting between 21 and 23 days on average, although males will assume incubation duties if the female leaves the nest or dies. Down-covered young are able to follow their mothers, run and feed soon after birth, and both parents participate in caring for the young. In the event that one parent leaves the brood or dies, a single parent is capable of caring for the young quail12.

Notes of Interest: The Gambel’s Quail is a popular game bird. Hunters enjoy a long season with few restrictions and are able to bag up to 15 birds in a single day13.

1. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gambels_Quail/id
2. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
3. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gambels_Quail/id
4. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
5. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gambels_Quail/id
6. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/gambels-quail/
7. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
8. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
9. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/gambels-quail/
10. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii
11. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
12. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/
13. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Callipepla_gambelii/