Meet the Red-Bellied Woodpecker Chick

A Discovery in Our Backyard

My wife was the first one to notice.

For several days, she kept telling me about hearing chirpy sounds emanating from the trees in front of our building.  In the back of my mind, I just assumed it was the newly hatched night herons in a nearby oak that I had already been following.  After a few more days of the incessant chirping, I suddenly realized that the sounds were coming from a line of Australian pines, where I had recently seen a fair amount of adult woodpecker activity.  It took an hour or two of sleuthing, but I finally found the elusive chick!  (Woodpeckers are very good at finding secluded spots for their nests.)

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker

There are several species of woodpecker in our area, but the most common, by far, is the red-bellied woodpecker.  Here is a photo that I took in December of 2018, showing an adult female pecking away at one of the many live oaks on our property:


An Adult Red-Bellied Woodpecker from December of 2018
(Nikon D40; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/125 sec; f/8; ISO = 400; EC = 0)

Perhaps the most prominent feature of this bird is a bright red nape.  (The male also possesses a red crown.)  So, why is this bird called a red-bellied woodpecker?  Good question!

In the above photo, you can barely make out a delicately colored reddish belly, between the legs and tail feathers.  It is this feature that gives the bird its name.  You can be forgiven, however, for not noticing it.  In many instances, the red belly is obscured by the bird’s orientation and/or surrounding feathers.  Fortunately, I happened to be almost directly below the bird (a risky decision!) when I snapped the picture.

But what about simply calling it a red-headed woodpecker?  That name is already taken by a different bird, whose striking appearance presents a much stronger case for the moniker.

Woodpeckers don’t build conventional nests.  They use a hole that they excavate in a tree trunk (or sometimes even a fence post).  They lay their eggs on the bed of wood chips left over after excavating the nest cavity.  Upon hatching, the chicks are naked and helpless, completely dependent on the parents for everything.

Introducing This Season’s Chick

The time that I spent locating the nest proved well worth the effort.  Personally, I’ve always had difficulty shooting woodpeckers.  They are very adept at maneuvering to the back side of the tree to avoid my camera.  They also spend a lot of time flitting from tree to tree, until they finally find one that suits them.  In this particular case, however, I have a captive audience: the chick has not yet ventured outside the nest cavity, and the parents hover close by to keep a close watch on the homestead.

In this initial shoot, I was able to capture a generous slice of the secret life of woodpeckers.  My first surprise was the general appearance of the nestling.  Compared with the colorful adult plumage, the chick looks rather drab:

01 Mouth open_0357

The Woodpecker Chick Squawking to Be Fed 
(Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/400 sec; f/5.6; ISO = 1600; EC =+0.67 )

although he does possess the characteristic barred pattern on the flight wings:

Barred flight wings_0371

Although Lacking the Colorful Neck and Head Plumage of the Adult, the Chick Does Sport the Barred Pattern on the Flight Wings.
(Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/400 sec; f/5.6; ISO = 1600; EC =+1.0)

According to my “go to” site for all things avian, the typical clutch size for this species of woodpecker is 2 – 6 eggs.  It is difficult to know how many chicks we currently have, however, since the nest cavity is completely closed except for the relatively small opening to the outside world.  (I’m not perceptive enough to be able to discern one chick from another.)  So, are there multiple chicks?  Time will tell, as the chick(s) gain the courage to spend time outside the nest cavity.

These woodpeckers appear to be omnivores, with a diet consisting of insects, spiders, acorns, nuts, lizards, and even small fish.  What’s on the menu today?  As near as I can tell, today’s meal consists of some type of worm.  (Any other suggestions?)

02 Feeding_0353

Mommy Comes to the Rescue! 
(Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/400 sec; f/5.6; ISO = 1600; EC = +0.67)

Note that the mother delivers the worm directly into the chick’s mouth.  (That’ll keep junior quiet for a while!)  She rotates her head by 90 degrees to avoid clashing swords with the chick during feeding:

03 Feeding_0356

The Female Delivers the Meal Directly into the Chick’s Mouth 
(Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/400 sec; f/5.6; ISO = 1600; EC = +0.67)

Woodpeckers have very long tongues, in order to pull insects out of the hole they’ve just pecked.  (The tongue can be several times the length of the beak!  It is usually rolled up and stored inside the skull.  See the illustration below.)  Our nestling has recently discovered his tongue, and is putting it through its paces:

05 Tongue_0390

The Woodpecker Chick Test-Drives His Impressive Tongue 
(Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; SS = 1/400 sec; f/5.6; ISO = 1600; EC = +1.0)

Exactly where does he put this thing when he’s not using it?  Amazingly enough, the tongue is stored in the head by curling it around the back, between the skull and skin:


In storage, a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head between the skull and skin.1

This elaborate design would bring tears to the eyes of any mechanical engineers in the audience.  Personally, I found it génial!2

Watch this space for updates!
The above pics represent my first photo shoot with this season’s woodpecker chick.  I’ll be returning in a couple of days to report on progress.  Maybe I’ll discover a second chick?  Stay tuned!

1 Illustration by Denise Takahashi, in BirdWatching.
2 Awesome!

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