Thursday, March 26, 2009

Woodpecker Heaven

The burned pines along the Mitchell Trail may look dead – more of them are lying down than standing up and the bark is charred and peeling – but they are actually full of life. Full of wood boring beetles and grubs, these trees are the perfect habitat for several species of woodpeckers.

The species of woodpeckers that have made their home on Mitchell trail include Hairy, Downy, Three-Toed and Williamson’s, and it’s clear they’ve been busy. The bare trunks are covered with perfectly round holes that look like they could have been made with thick nails, but instead were made by hundreds of strong beaks.

Over the crunch of dry gravel we could hear one knocking. Without the cover of pine needles it was possible to see three or four birds at one time as they flew from tree to tree. It’s a great place to go bird watching.

The Hairy Woodpecker is the most widespread woodpecker in North America, and has over 17 subspecies. Males have a red patch on their head and their plumage is black and white. They are 7-10 inches long with a wingspan of 13-16 inches. They spend most of their time foraging on the trunks.

Usually found alongside the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy woodpecker is smaller and prefers to spend time on smaller branches.

Most woodpeckers have four toes, but the Three-Toed has one less. The lack of a fourth toe may improve their pecking abilities but makes it harder to climb. They are black and white and the males have a yellow cap. They breed farther north than any other woodpecker, and New Mexico is at the southern tip of their range.

Because the adult male and female Williamson’s Sapsuckers look so different, for a time they were assumed to be males of two separate species, and the young were assumed to be females of those species. He wrote, “A nest was at length discovered, excavated in the trunk of a live aspen, and both the parent birds were secured as they flew from the hole, having just entered with food for the newly hatched young.”

Woodpeckers are still nesting in June, so it may be possible to see a woodpecker family leave its nest. The Mitchell trailhead is located on the corner of 45th Street and Arizona Avenue.


  1. I saw my share of woodpeckers the other day when i went for a nature walk on the grounds of the Reynolda House (the historic summer home of the RJ Reynolds family). I also saw several turtles, and i wished that I had taken my camera to show melissa, my cell phone camera didn't capture all of their turtliness. It's actually a pretty nice place for shorter hikes.

  2. Awesome! I want to check that place out.