|SPOT EM: Red-bellied woodpeckers are easily identified by their zebra-patterned backs and red caps, and not by their hard-to-see red bellies.|
Drum Roll, Please
The rat-ta-tat-tat of lively black, white, and red woodpeckers add an upbeat tempo to a gray winter day.
You may not know the difference between a lark sparrow and a house sparrow, but when a black, white, and red woodpecker flashes before your eyes, you know which bird has landed. If you have any identification doubts, the fact that they cling and hammer away at tree trunks is a real giveaway. Most of the time, the distinctive rat-ta-tat-tat sound will draw your eyes to the silhouette of a bird jerking, hitching, and pecking its way up a tree while drilling the trunk for ants and other delectable goodies. For now, we’ll leave the identification of the LBJs (little brown jobs) to the real bird nerds and concentrate on the wonderful woodpeckers that dot the Dallas landscape.
For most of us, woodpeckers are already close to our hearts – who doesn’t remember Woody Woodpecker, who pecked his way out of one impossible situation after another? But new birders have been drawn to the species since the rediscovery of the thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. You won’t find an ivory-billed in Dallas (if you do, call me quickly), but, especially during the winter, you will find at least five other species to keep you busy.
Thanks to big trees and creek beds scattered throughout our city, the woodpecker is easy to find. The red-bellied and the downy varieties are our most common year-round residents. In addition, they are relatively cheap dates “adding a suet or a peanut feeder to your backyard feeding station will almost guarantee an appearance by both of these entertaining birds.
If woodpeckers get one bad rap, it’s that they damage and kill trees by “sucking the life” out of them. “Not so,” says bird expert David Hurt of Wild Birds Unlimited. “Woodpeckers do not kill a tree, they are merely taking advantage of a sugar source much the way we humans tap maple trees for syrup.”
Downies, the smallest of locally common woodpeckers, will stay on your suet feeder year round. Attracting one in the winter months proves to be a rewarding experience, for once spring has sprung, Ma and Pa downy will bring their babies to the suet feeder and train them on the ins and outs of straddling the cages to pick at the high-energy suet. After the young ones get the hang of it (literally), you might have the whole family in your yard for a week or two.
Even though it’s hard to see the red belly of the red-bellied woodpecker, they are easily recognizable by their familiar zebra-striped back and a dramatic long red stripe covering the entire crown from the bill to the nape. (That goes for the males; the head of the female is white, while the nape remains red.)
Some “winter residents” include the hairy woodpecker, which is very similar to the downy. But if you look closely, you’ll find that the bill is twice as long and the hairy has no spots on outside tail feathers. Plus, they are shy and don’t tend to come to feeders.
Also less common in our back yards, and uncommon to eating at feeders, are the flickers who move to Dallas for the cold months. Many, including the yellow-shafted and red-shafted flickers, have been spotted around the White Rock area and are usually spotted from October through May. From a distance, flickers are distinguished from their woodpecker cousins by the fact that flickers will hop around on the ground for food.
Not so for the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, who are seen frequently around town, but infrequently at backyard feeders. Their interesting “Z of white” head pattern and bar of white on the wing when perched makes them a grand sighting.
Even more dandy is the pileated woodpecker, the largest, well, except for the ivory-billed, of all woodpeckers. The crow-sized bird, which is mostly black except for a white stripe that zigzags from the bill down the neck and wing sides, is best know for its mop of tufted bright red feathers on top. Unless you live in east Texas, you will have to go looking for the pileated. An early morning trip along the Trinity River forest, outer city waterways lined with large trees, or the area surrounding the Fort Worth Nature Center may provide you with a splendid view of this marvelous bird. If you don’t have the energy to go chasing after the pileated, just turn on your TV. The pileated was most likely used as the model by artist Walter Lantz to create the original drawing of the famous Woody Woodpecker.
How Suet It Is
Hanging a suet or a peanut (out of the shell) feeder not only provides a great source of quick energy for woodpeckers, but it is also an easy way to watch birds without the mess.
I make my own “hard” suet that can be easily cut to fit your feeder. If you’re new to attracting birds, thin the recipe with a little peanut butter and slather the mixture on the bark of your trees. It won’t be long before your back yard will be a swirl of black, white, and red.
NANCY’S “MARTHA” SUET
1/2 cup lard (or fresh ground suet, which is usually available in Mexican markets such as Fiesta)
1/3 cup sunflower seed
2/3 cup wild birdseed mix
1/8 cup chopped peanuts
1/4 cup chopped raisins (If you want to get fancy, add some dried fruit.)
Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat. Allow it to cool thoroughly and then reheat. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a separate bowl. Allow suet to cool until slightly thickened. Stir nut and seed mixture into the suet. Pour into a pie or square pan and allow to cool before slicing.