My favorite redhead

Birds sightings remained at a minimum as last December moseyed along.

There was no snow at the beginning and, for the most part, my lake remained open. Mallards, if here at all, came in flocks. The only geese I saw were overhead and, after a while, the trio of lady hooded mergansers also departed.

The “regulars” became quite irregular. Chickadees and the nuthatch were stingy in their visits. Juncos returned with the threat of more blustery weather (and how!) as did a pair of downy woodpeckers. Ever the raucous jay didn’t appear long enough to eat the popcorn or demand his peanuts. One white-throated sparrow stopped briefly before moving on to more hospitable climes — or was it simply a choice of yards?

Probably the steadiest visitor nowadays is the wonderful Red-Bellied Woodpecker. “Wonderful” because sighting him still excites me since, compared to the rest, it seems quite exotic. It hardly fits in with the general avian black and white at this season.

But not rare. Necessarily. My first photographs were taken at a great distance, just an obvious woodpecker schnozzle and a brilliant red head. The back is barred black and white. A red cap that covers the top of his head to his beak indicates a male. The female also has red but it stops closer to her neck.

Males visited regularly in 2001-2 with a female coming along/alone for much of ’03-04. Then very few sightings at all until January 2013 when they seemed to have decided they liked the place. Usually only one sex was identified though what I presume was a couple were regular visitors in 2014-15 and again in 2016-17. I did mark a juvenile in July of 2016 and a pair were here often last winter. This fall, however, it’s a lone male.

The best part is that he’s here daily — even when I don’t see other woodpeckers, the nuthatch or chickadee or even the jay. And he still strikes me as a most exotic bird with that brilliant red head.

So why red-belly and not red-head? Only a guess perhaps but it looks like “redhead” was already taken — and I don’t mean Lucy — and the Red Belly does have a faint pinkish breast. The Red-Headed Woodpecker can also be found around here though it’s considered uncommon. Too bad. Its body is solid black and white, very different in appearance. I’m sorry to say it’s escaped my eye — to date.

Permit me to defer, as I prefer, to T. Gilbert Pearson:

“In the South, where apparently it reaches its greatest abundance, the bird is constantly met with, whether one journeys through the pine barrens, or among the heavy growths of deciduous trees that constitute the ‘hammocks’ surrounding many of the ponds and lakes. It is a bird equally at home in the unbroken forests or about the plantations wherever trees are found. In flight it exhibits to some extent the characteristic galloping, undulating movement peculiar to most members of the family, and upon alighting often gives voice to the harsh, brassy cry of ‘chad, chad’ from which one of its local names has been acquired.

“The nest is of the usual Woodpecker type, being made in a hole excavated generally in a dead tree or limb. Sometimes a pair will take possession of a cavity already completed by some other Woodpecker, and while such action may involve a moral question, it at least indicates a disposition to conserve physical effort which by many is to-day [sic] rated high among the vital resources of our country.

“Only one element in the food of the Redbellied woodpecker has much economic significance. The bird evinces a decided taste for fruit, and sometimes injures orchards, as in Florida orange groves. On several occasions, when in that State, I have seen these birds engaged in eating oranges still on the trees. The contents of the stomachs examined by the Biological Survey, however, show that wild fruits are the favorites, and probably only when these have been replaced by cultivated ones is any mischief done. . . . In its animal food the bird is almost entirely beneficial, as the insects eaten are largely noxious.”

I can wish you the joy of entertaining this visitor near you.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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