Woodpecker Tail Feathers

Once the trees shed their summer foliage it is so much easier to find and observe our avian winter residents. Recently a female hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) was working in an old apple tree near our house (Lookout CA). I watched as she explored a hole in the trunk.  Hairy woodpeckers nest in holes in trees, preferring a dead portion of a living tree or a tree with heartrot. It is early to be thinking of nesting, but could this lady be doing reconnaissance with an eye to spring? What a wonderful location for me to watch a hairy woodpecker pair raise their young.

Hairy woodpeckers look like larger versions of the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). The differences are subtle with a longer bill and no spotting on the outer tail feathers being characteristic field markings. They often live in association with one another. Both hairy and downy woodpeckers reside in our area throughout the year.

I have been rereading portions of “Feathers” by Thor Hanson (a birthday gift from my son last year) so I began to closely watch the long, stiff tail feathers of the hairy woodpecker. I once read that among birds feathers can serve nearly thirty functions. One of these functions, especially in woodpeckers, is to provide support or bracing as the bird climbs the trunk of trees. This hairy woodpecker, depending on the contours of the tree and her angle, would alter the tail position and press the stiff tail feathers against the trunk to stabilize herself. Once firmly “anchored” on three points (two legs and tail) woodpeckers can examine the holes or forage for insects in tree bark. In the pictures the tail tail can be seen bracing the hairy woodpecker as it moves around the apple tree.

The more I learn about feathers, the more fascinating they become.

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3 Responses to Woodpecker Tail Feathers

  1. Pingback: Nuttall’s Woodpecker | The Nature Niche

  2. Nice post. Just this morning I watched a Brown Creeper doing that – creeping up a tree using his trail as a prop. Fun to watch.

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