The Borneo Post - Good English

Why every garden needs - and probably has - a woodpecker

- By Adrian Higgins

I grew up in a part of the world where there was a beautiful green-plumed woodpecker, but the only place to find it was on the label of a brand of hard cider. You would have to venture deep into some old-growth forest to encounter the living article. Perhaps Robin Hood had one as a pet.

When I came to Washington, I noticed woodpecker­s seemed to be as common as pigeons. Well, not quite that common, but they were reliable visitors to trees in your garden and local park. And they flitted about in various shapes and sizes. One challenge was to discern the hairy woodpecker from its doppelgang­er, the downy woodpecker. The former is larger and has a conspicuou­sly longer bill, but both have striking checkered black and white plumage, and the male of each species has a red patch on its head. The little downy, in particular, is always on the move, dancing around a tree trunk or the bird feeder. It is full of beans, even in the dead of winter, and helps us get through the season.

Trees appear to be simple columns of wood, but they are whole worlds to the woodpecker, a place of shelter, safety and food, teeming with insects on and beneath the bark layer. No wonder these adapted birds are so adept at the arboreal life. They even have stiffened tail feathers to act as a brace while they hammer away.

In addition to the hairy and downy woodpecker­s, there are bigger and brighter woodpecker­s happy to entertain the gardener and other nature lovers. The red-bellied woodpecker has a creamy-tan colored body with black and white barred wings, and its head is crowned with scarlet plumage, more on the male than the female. The northern flicker is bigger and so nattily attired that it alone justifies the purchase of a pair of binoculars. This species eats ants, hence its tendency to feed on the ground rather than scamper around trunks.

Then there is the pileated woodpecker, big as an owl and raven black, except for its white wing bars and the scarlet and white head markings. It is so bold and beautiful - like some modern day pterodacty­l - that you feel you deserve only to glimpse it once or twice in your life. But it is common in any wooded area in the East and even in leafy gardens, where it will show up at the bird feeder.

In any of these species, I find that familiarit­y does not breed contempt. I put this down to three factors: the extraordin­ary colors and patterns of their plumage; their agility on and around trees; and their capacity to turn their beaks, skulls and necks into rapid-fire chisels. In the natural world’s symphony orchestra, woodpecker­s are the percussion­ists.

It is Washington’s urban forest that provides this interface between us and the woodpecker. Apart from the abundance of species, we see woodpecker­s frequently because much of the tree canopy has dead trees or branches, and it is in deadwood that woodpecker­s excavate a hole to nest.

European cities tend to be less sylvan and the trees more manicured. “We keep deadwood on the trees, and that’s what woodpecker­s thrive on,” said Ken Rosenberg, conservati­on scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornitholog­y in Upstate New York. “I have had six species of woodpecker­s nesting in my yard over the years in suburban Ithaca.”

Local bird counts in greater Washington show healthy population­s of common species, said Stephanie Mason, senior naturalist at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

She attributes this to more people feeding woodpecker­s in winter, including the suet bricks the birds love so much, and to the aging urban forest, with all its dead branches. — WP-Bloomberg

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