Tour Stop 53: Woodpeckers at West 11th Street Park
In addition to the striking Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers, West 11th Street Park is home to four other species of woodpeckers. The total of six species makes the park a hotspot for admirers of these unique birds.
Among the six woodpecker species in the park, there are two that are usually here only in the winter months. These are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Northern Flicker. Many people are familiar with the mid-sized black and white sapsucker because of the horizontal rows of small holes that they peck into the trunk or large limbs of trees. They return to these holes again and again to feed on the sap, or on insects attracted to the sap.
To hear Wireless Wilderness Audio for: Stop #53
The Northern Flicker, in addition to being the second largest woodpecker in the park after the Pileated Woodpecker, is also distinctive in its eating style. Sometimes, it descends from the trees that are the normal home of woodpeckers and feeds on the ground, eating ants.
West 11th Street Park is enough of a haven for woodpeckers that one year Northern Flickers stayed into the breeding season, fighting off starlings who were trying to steal their hole, and succeeding in bringing new flickers into the world. Given that the Northern Flickers are rare in Houston in the breeding season, this breeding record is exceptional.
The park’s final two species of woodpeckers are common year-round in Houston: the small black and white Downy Woodpecker, and the mid-sized and confusingly named Red-bellied Woodpecker. In fact, the red on the belly of the Red-bellied Woodpecker is only a tinge of red or rose and is often quite hard to see. Meanwhile the red on the nape and crown of this species (on adult males) is quite bright and obvious. Because of this, some people think that when they see this species, they are seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker – after all, it has red on its head! But in fact the genuine Red-headed Woodpecker has red covering its entire head, not just the nape and crown, and the solid black of its back and outer wing contrasting with bold white patches on the inner wings and rump is quite distinctive. The Red-bellied Woodpecker, in contrast, has rows of thin light and dark bars on the back, giving that area a gray look, not solid black. And while it has light patches on the wings, these are on the outer wings and do not contrast sharply with the surrounding areas.
The woodpecker’s habit of nesting in deep holes inside a tree is of benefit to other inhabitants of the park’s forest. Since owls, along with woodpeckers, are leading attractions among the species of birds in the park, it is worth noting that woodpecker holes can serve as roosting sites and nesting sites for Eastern Screech-Owls. One of the photographs for tour stop 3 provides an example of this.
Woodpeckers have interesting physical adaptations that allow them to perch on the side of trees and drill into wood. They have short legs and very pointed nails that make it easier for them to clutch on to the bark of trees. A pair of firm and centrally located tail feathers supports them like a brace and keeps them upright on trees. Bristle-like feathers over their nostrils help woodpeckers to ward off wood flakes created by pecking. A very thick skull and large neck muscles protect the brain of woodpeckers from shocks caused by persistent pecking behavior.