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Tag Archive | "woodpeckers"

Pieces and parts

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Learn to see and help wildlife at the same time. First, place a bird feeder 5 to 15 feet from a window where you can observe birds. Second, discover distinguishing characteristics for identifying different species and even sexes of birds. Use systematic practice with different pieces and parts of birds on different days.

Start with heads and stick with just that part. Common birds that frequent feeders are Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, and American Goldfinches.

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

On the head, look for a crest. Jays, cardinals, and titmice will have a crest. Notice they can stand it up or lay it flat. Look for head patterns. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a black-cap with white cheek and throat. The chickadee also has a black cap and white cheek but its throat is black.

The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have nearly identical head appearances. Both have black and white stripes running from the front of the head toward the back. The Hairy has a larger head and the entire body is larger but I frequently encounter people misidentifying them based on size. A helpful head feature to note is that the Hairy has a beak that is as long as the head or longer. The Downy’s is shorter than the length of the head. Male and female Hairy and Downy’s can be separated because the males have a red spot on the back of the head and females do not have red on the head.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

On another day, look at bird wings. Are they a solid color? Chickadees have gray wings with white along the edge of each feather. Titmice have solid gray wings. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have black wings that are heavily spotted with white. Goldfinches have two light wing bars running crosswise across the wings. House finches also have wing bars but they are more faint.

Third day check out tails. Are the tops and bottoms different? How about the edges? The gray tail on the chickadee has a white frame around the edge. Are tails of different lengths? The chickadee has a long narrow tail. The nuthatch as a shorter wide tail. Woodpecker tail feathers have obvious pointed projections at the end that are used in their nature niche to brace themselves on a tree when using their sharp bill for pecking trees. Hairy’s have white undertails. Downy’s have black dashes across the white underside.

Many unique features help separate bird species. It becomes easier when we notice pieces and parts. At the feeder, we get frequent, repeated, and even long looks at what is called bird topography. Purchase a field guide and study the bird topography page.

When you try to identify a species, the guide may suggest looking at the crown, cheek, lores, supraloral stripe, nape, or some other feature that may be foreign to you. By practicing on birds at the feeder and comparing features listed on the topography page with birds in view, it will be easier to recognize pieces and parts when you begin looking at birds in the bush.

We notice the over all general appearance of different birds and most recognize that large blue birds with a crest are Blue Jays, bright red birds with a crest are Northern Cardinals, and smaller gray birds with a crest and white belly are Tufted Titmice. Sometimes it is not easy to separate birds with similar appearances. That is evident when we look at the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Take time to enjoy the details. We barely began the discussion of appearance. Continue by comparing bill sizes and shapes or bird bellies. Discovering bird pieces and parts is fascinating.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.


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Seventeen and Twelve


Spring-cleaning time has arrived. Seventeen bird nest boxes contained last year’s nesting material at Ody Brook. The backyard supported an Eastern Bluebird family. House wrens arrived later in the spring and raised a family in the same box. We were concerned the wren might kill young bluebirds to gain nest box access but it did not.

This year I checked 29 nest boxes. Seventeen had nesting material and twelve were empty. Empty ones probably were not used to raise young but likely provided winter shelter. Boxes are in the field, shrub thickets, woods, and at pond’s edge in hopes of attracting a variety of 30 plus cavity nesting species.

Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and even the Great-crested Flycatchers nest in hollow living or dead trees. Lack of tree cavities could be a limiting factor that prevents bird reproductive success when hollow trees are removed from neighborhoods or are in short supply. Unless a tree poses a danger to the house or people, let them stand. Woodpeckers excavate cavities that other birds use in succeeding years. Fortunately dead trees stand for many years. People remove many for firewood and that makes nesting success difficult.

About 20 years ago a cherry tree died at the edge of the yard and it still stands through gale force winds. An Eastern Phoebe selected it as a favorite perch from which to hunt insects. The Northern Yellow-shafted Flicker considers it a great drumming tree. The dead wood resonates sound creating a loud territorial announcement. The barren tree provides great views of perching birds.

Install nest boxes to assist bird survival. Avoid placing them close to trails or where people regularly frequent. Most should be obscure of easy view to provide nesting privacy from predators and people. I have placed nest boxes in the woods to reduce nest cavity shortage. Boxes in the field serve Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds where they vie for the nesting space. Two boxes are placed within 15 feet of each other. Tree Swallows claim one and prevent other swallows from using the second box. Swallows do not object to bluebird neighbors but draw the line at other tree swallows. In effect the swallow helps bluebirds by protecting the second box from swallow use.

Wrens prefer shrubbery nearby. When shrubs grew too close for bluebirds, I cleared more area and bluebirds returned to use the box.

The Eastern Screech Owl nest box was not checked to make sure it is empty. We can see the nest box opening as we enter the carport and sometimes the owl peers out at us. The box is the same style used for Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads. We have suitable habitat for Wood Ducks that are present each summer.

I clean nest boxes but let the birds do their own spring-cleaning in natural cavities. Hopefully nest cavities are not in short supply at Ody Brook. To help bird populations install nest boxes where you live. Our expanding human population is crowding birds out of neighborhoods so help by providing nest boxes. Hopefully clean water and food are abundant if pesticide and herbicide use is limited. Provide nest boxes and maybe you will have 17 occupied boxes and 12 empty ones. If water and food are plentiful, empty boxes might indicate adequate nesting space is present in nature niches.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.


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Breakfast for two

N-Pileated-woodpeckersDavid Marin, of Nelson Township, has been waiting a long time to get this photo. He finally got his chance last Thursday, March 14, at 9:45 a.m.

“On rare occasions, the notoriously camera-shy and nervous pileated woodpeckers come to the suet at my feeders,” explained Marin. “This morning, I was able to capture a photo of both male and female at the same time, something I’ve been hoping and trying to get an opportunity to do for decades.” Marin lives about three miles east of Cedar Springs.

According to Ranger Steve Mueller, although the birds look similar, you can definitely tell one is male and one is female. “The male (lower bird) has red on forehead to bill and the female does not (her red stays on top of her head). The male has a red mustache (dark strip from base of bill) and the female has a black mustache,” he said.

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