Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a Roost Hole – A Pair? Or Not?

Early this afternoon – a warm, sunny day with a flannel blue sky, not a cloud in sight, and light breezes sending down showers of brown leaves from the oaks – I watched a female Red-bellied Woodpecker working on a hole high up in a tall dead pine tree just inside the woods behind our house.

She worked for at least an hour, her claws clinging to a large loose slab of bark so that she perched on the trunk in profile to me, and through a scope I had a clear view, framed all around in the copper-brown leaves of white oaks. After about an hour I heard a low, rattled call from nearby. The female woodpecker moved quickly out of the way, around the trunk, and a male flew in to the exact same spot, clinging to the same piece of loose bark, and immediately started working in the same way. The female disappeared quietly.

It looked to me as if the two were a pair, working together on this hole and making a smooth change in the work shift, so one rests while the other works. But – when I looked this up, the information I found indicates that Red-bellied Woodpeckers are generally solitary through the fall and winter and only form pair bonds in nesting season.* So I’m not sure if these two are working together – or if they are competing for this spot. They certainly looked as if they were cooperating peacefully, no indication of aggression or objection or fussing. But I don’t know. I first saw one of the woodpeckers working on the hole yesterday, so they’ve been working on it for at least two days now. Maybe they sometimes share work on a hole even if they’re not a mated pair.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker is sturdy, medium-size, and one of the most common woodpeckers in most areas in the eastern U.S. With its shimmering red nape and crown, smooth gray face, round head, long dark bill, tawny gray breast and black wings barred with white, it’s a handsome, vocal and very active bird. The soft reddish blush on the lowest part of its belly is not at all obvious, so its name can be confusing.

The female – whose red covers the back of the neck but not the crown – clung to the loose slab of bark on the side of the trunk and leaned around the trunk, using her tail as a brace, to work on the hole, which is on the opposite side of the tree, facing south, where I can’t see it. What I could see was that her whole body worked as she knocked or dug at the hole for several seconds, then came back to an upright position, usually with a bill-full of pale wood fiber, which she tossed away with a flick of her head. After a pause of a few seconds to look around, she leaned over to work on the hole again. Sometimes I could hear her knocking on the wood, but mostly she was quiet. She continued this pattern, working steadily, sometimes leaning around further so that her tail came off the trunk, as if her head were further inside a growing hole.

Once when she paused, the sun lit her face, showing big bright amber-brown eyes and a smudge of soft red over the long dark bill. Below her tail were scattered dark spots, some in the shape of hearts.

When the male Red-bellied Woodpecker arrived, he worked quietly and steadily, as she had, after only that approaching, relatively low call. Once he stopped briefly to scratch his lower belly with his bill, and I could see the dull reddish-fawn feathering.

*The species account in Birds of North America Online says the pair bond lasts about seven months, through the nesting season, and it is “rare to find mated pairs from September through January.” It mentions that both sexes excavate cavities for roosting, and both sexes change roost sites frequently, but says “adults roost singly in cavities at night,” and does not describe pairs working together on roost holes. Clifford E. Shackelford, Raymond E. Brown and Richard N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carollinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Post a Comment

<< Home