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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Woodpeckers are a Kentucky native negatively impacted by invasive Starling

Woodpeckers are found throughout Kentucky, and are most abundant wherever semi-open forests or big trees are present.

In winter, several species of woodpeckers often frequent backyard bird feeders, where they can be observed up close and photographed.

Place trays on the ground filled with mixed bird seed that includes black oil sunflower seeds, and hang suet cakes in wire cage feeders, and it’s likely woodpeckers will show up. Woodpeckers are particularly fond of suet, a mixture of fat, seed and fruits.

Six species — the Red-Headed Woodpecker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker — nest in Kentucky.

In the late 1990s the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis), a federally endangered species, had a tenuous foothold in the pine forests of southern Daniel Boone National Forest, but today the species may not be present in the state.

Woodpeckers are members of Family Picidae. They are tree clingers — adapted to climbing and feeding on trees. Most species have specialized feet and toes.

Their long tongues with barbed tips are used to probe crevices in tree bark to find insects and larvae. They have stiff tail feathers that prop them up when they climb.

As imagined, woodpeckers have thick, bony skulls to withstand the pounding of their chisel-like bills on tree bark and rotting wood. Feathers cover their nostrils to protect the nasal cavity from wood chips and dust.

They excavate nest cavities in dead snags of otherwise living trees, or in the limbs or trunks of rotting trees, usually located just inside the forest edge. Most species seem to prefer semi-open terrain, rather than closed-canopy forests.

They use their nesting cavities to store food, and escape the brunt of cold weather, in addition to raising young.

The woodpecker’s plumage is generally not brightly colored, but they often have distinctive markings and patches of red around their heads.

Here’s some information on five species of woodpeckers found in Kentucky, with details from The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

• The Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is common in Central and Western Kentucky, but somewhat rare throughout the Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains.

The species is found most often in semi-open to open areas with big trees, hence it abundance in the bottomland forests, swamps and sloughs of Western Kentucky.

In pre-settlement, the Red-Headed Woodpecker was likely present in great numbers in the native prairies and savannas of Central Kentucky.

Acorns and other nuts are a favorite food.

This 10-inch, jay-sized bird is strikingly colored, with a red head. The wings and tail are bluish-black, the breast is white, and there are white patches on their wings.

This year-round resident begins nesting in May.

• The Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is found throughout Kentucky, but is less abundant in the eastern third of the state.

This robin-sized woodpecker is found in a variety of habitats but seems to favor rural farmland with scattered woodlots, suburban yards, urban parks and riparian corridors.

A year-round resident, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, readily comes to feeders in the winter.

Nesting begins in mid-April.

Their plumage is black and white (barred) on their backs and wings, with a pale breast. Males have a red crown and nape.

Their preferred food is boring beetles, grasshoppers, ants and other insects, but they also consume nuts and wild fruits.

Downy Woodpecker

• The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), the smallest woodpecker in the eastern U.S., is sparrow-sized, and the most numerous and widespread woodpecker in Kentucky.

They are found in all of the state’s forest types, yet seem to prefer farmland woodlots, large urban parks, and wooded suburban neighborhoods. Very fond of suet, this approachable little woodpecker is a common visitor to backyard bird feeders.

Plumage is black and white with numerous white spots. Males have a small red patch on the nape of the neck.

The Downy Woodpecker is often confused with the larger Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which has a longer bill and unspotted white back.

In the fall, the Downy Woodpecker is often found in the company of nuthatches, creepers and chickadees.

Nesting territories are established by mid-April.

Northern Flicker

• The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a 12-inch woodpecker found in uniform abundance across the state.

Distinctive plumage, a loud wicka-wicka-wicka vocalization, and unique feeding habits make this large woodpecker easily identifiable. Males have a brown back with dark bars, a white breast with black spots, a red patch on the nape, and a black “mustache.”

The Northern Flicker feeds primarily on the ground, eating ants and beetle larvae.

Its preferred habitat is a mix of woodlands and open land, with some large trees nearby.

In winter, transients from more northern breeding areas, pass through Kentucky and may overwinter here, boosting local populations.

One brood is raised a year and nest trees stand alone or are in a cluster of trees

Pileated Woodpecker (Photo by Robert Mislan)

• The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is Kentucky’s largest woodpecker.

The 17-inch, crow-sized bird has distinctive plumage too, and a loud, unmistakable vocalization cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk, that rises and falls in pitch. Its plumage is black with white neck stripes, and a prominent red crest. The linings of the wings are white.

This reclusive bird lives in mature forests and is uncommon to fairly common, found statewide, except the Bluegrass Region, where it is considered rare.

One of the best times to get a glimpse of this majestic woodpecker is in the spring, as nesting activity begins in late March. Their large, rectangular entry to the nesting cavity, is distinctive.

Wild turkey hunters in the spring often use a Pileated Woodpecker call as a gobbler locator call. The shrill, high-pitched notes “shock” a tom into gobbling, so the hunter can determine the exact location of the bird, to set up for the hunt.

Woodpeckers are a prime example of Kentucky native wildlife being negatively impacted by exotic, invasive species.

Woodpecker reproduction, and ultimately their abundance, has been severely impacted by the non-native European Starling, a noxious bird that competes for nest sites, often taking over holes in trees made by woodpeckers.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors column.

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One Comment

  1. Marybeth says:

    The inclusion of this in the title (“negatively impacted by invasive Starling”) is only covered by a SINGLE SENTENCE at the end of the article. Hello!?!?!? Hello?!?!?! Is anyone home?

    It would have been nice if the article was about that, though I did rather enjoy the article. Just had nothing to do with the title. Kind of disappointing.

    (“Woodpecker reproduction, and ultimately their abundance, has been severely impacted by the non-native European Starling, a noxious bird that competes for nest sites, often taking over holes in trees made by woodpeckers.”)

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