Meet the three U.S. woodpeckers noted for storing food and protecting their stash
RED-HEADED WOODPECKERS (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) don’t usually visit feeders in summer, but, in winter, they’ll sometimes visit for nuts, fruit, especially suet — where you can get a good look at them. Their food is mainly acorns and beechnuts, but they’re also proficient at catching insects in the air.
Like other woodpeckers, they also hammer into wood to find insects, as well as foraging for them on the ground. They store and protect leftover food in tree crevices and are the only woodpeckers who cover it up (usually with bits of wood). Some insects, especially grasshoppers, are stored alive in crevices so tight they can’t escape.
Males and females are indistinguishable from each other in the field. They fiercely defend their territory and use bobbing or bowing displays to express aggression. They may also remove or puncture eggs of other bird species and destroy nests.
They’re birds of pine and other open forests, tree rows, standing timber swamps and other wetlands in the eastern 2/3 of the U.S. and southern Canada. Those living in the more northern and western parts of their range migrate short distances south in winter. Fossils found in Florida, Virginia and Illinois date these birds back 2 million years, to the Pleistocene age. Their population has declined dramatically in the past 50 years due to habitat loss and changes to their food supply.
RED-BELLIED WOODPECKERS (Melanerpes carolinus) are named for their red belly, but, it’s really barely noticeable. It’s their red head and striped back that catch the eye. They differ from other woodpeckers by their habit of foraging for food mostly on the ground, instead of in trees or in flight, even digging down with their bill to find arthropods.
They eat other foods, too, including fruits, nuts and seeds. They commonly store food, usually in tree cracks and fenceposts.
They aggressively defend their nestlings from predators. An observer reports that one hapless flying squirrel made the mistake of roosting in a separate cavity in the same tree and was repeatedly thrown off the tree by a Red-bellied Woodpecker pair.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are non-migratory inhabitants of humid pine or mixed forests. The most abundant woodpeckers in the southeastern U.S., they’re less common in the northern half of their range. Comfortable in urban settings with suitable woodlands, they’ll fly out to visit feeders for suet, peanuts, sometimes sunflower seeds.
If you have large snags in your yard, they might excavate a nest hole there for nesting. They also excavate shallower cavities for roosting. They like to “drum” on hollow trees, as well as guttering and metal roofs. Their population appears to have grown in recent years because they’ve been adaptable to different types of forests and to an urban environment.
ACORN WOODPECKERS (Melanerpes formicivorus) eat, well, you know! They’re well-known for storing in trees a lot of the acorns they don’t eat. Called a granary, a single tree may hold up to 50,000 acorns! Each acorn fits tightly into a hole. As they dry and shrink, the acorns are moved to smaller holes. It’s a busy job! Not only that, but the acorns are visible and must be defended from scrub jays and others, so there must always be a woodpecker standing guard duty.
The birds may also use other places that suit them, such as crevices and cracks in buildings and telephone poles.
Although acorns are their main dish, they eat other things, too: sap, fruit, flower nectar, lizards and other small animals, and especially insects, which they sometimes store in cracks for eating later. They visit feeders for nuts, seeds and suet. However, you may wish they didn’t — if they find your wood siding to their liking and start making holes in it, they can be hard to get rid of.
Common inhabitants of oak and mixed-oak forests on slopes and mountains of the southwestern U.S., West Coast and south to Colombia, they rarely migrate except in areas with large seasonal fluctuations of insect populations. They’re highly social and live year-round in groups. Their population seems to be stable, but they face threats from habitat loss and degradation. All about birds
*Top image: G.R. Allen / Flickr; cc by-nc-sa 2.0)