The Sufficiency of Small Things

When do you say, “I’ve seen it all!” or, “I’ve had enough!”? Sometimes when my husband starts talking about travel involving airplanes, I say, “I’ve seen enough!” My tolerance for airports, airlines and other air travelers has diminished as I age.

Oddly, though I’m on the trails at Hill-Stead so often, I have never felt that I’ve seen enough of them. Something always happens to pique my interest or even make me laugh. I suppose it’s just as well our trails are quiet. The sight of me walking along alone and laughing my head off might worry people. The other day I was hiking along, thinking how much fun it was looking at woodpeckers. They are amusing birds, and easy to see in any season save  high summer, which they spend skulking around so that they don’t draw attention to their babies. It must be a real strain on them, since they are utter rabble rousers the rest of the year.

Many woodpeckers look alike, so it can be hard to tell them apart. Their names seem deliberately confusing, as though the nomenclature police don’t really want people to know which one is which. The “Red-Headed Woodpecker” for example, is infrequently seen in Connecticut and it does have a very red head. But the “Red-Bellied Woodpecker”, seen commonly here, also wears a sort of red skullcap. Since people see the red-bellied often, and the red head is so prominent, most people in these parts think it is the Red-Headed Woodpecker. They have no idea that the bird also sports a pretty red mark on its’ belly, which in reality accounts for the name.

A list of woodpeckers that can be seen in Connecticut is found in stores selling birding supplies and books. You can also print one from the Connecticut Ornithological Association website. There aren’t a lot of woodpeckers on it, and one that is listed is extirpated from the state. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is listed, but is rarely seen. That leaves six woodpeckers that anyone here might reasonably expect to see. These are: Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker.

Most of us can identify a Downy.  They aren’t scarce, and they are the spitting image of the Hairy Woodpecker, which is harder to find than the Downy. Both have black and white “ladder” patterns on the back, and males have a distinctive red dot on the back of the head. But the Downy has a beak that is about the same length as the width of its’ head. The Hairy’s beak is far longer than that, and the bird is really much bigger overall than the Downy.

The Flicker is a charming woodie with a little chevron at the top of the chest, and a funny red Simon Legree mustache. They love to forage for ants and are known for feeding on the ground. With a brown/beige color scheme they camouflage well, and they also feed in trees.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has the habit of drilling horizontal lines of “wells” in order to sip the sap that oozes out. They re-drill the wells to keep them flowing, also eating bugs drawn there by the sweet sap  – a miracle of one-stop shopping. Woodpeckers have long tongues that roll up like fire hoses and are attached at the back of the head so they can stretch a long way into a hole or crevice.  It is shaped like a bottle brush the better to dig the food out. Scientists (and helmet companies) are studying woodpecker skulls to figure out how they handle all that pecking without sustaining brain damage. They are models of good design.

The enormous Pileated Woodpecker was the prototype for Woody Woodpecker. It has the same hammer-shaped head and crazy laugh like the cartoon bird. Pileated’s are cousin to the “Lord God Bird”, or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. A couple of years back someone in an Arkansas swamp thought they saw an Ivory-Billed. Before that, people thought the bird was extinct, and only old folks ever remembered seeing them. By the 1940’s the bird was already rare, and when the war came and forests were logged, no one saw it any more, until the guy in the swamp. Ivory-Billed’s were known as the “Lord God” bird because people who saw the huge things would utter “Lord God!” in amazement.

The Pileated was and is found in those same swamps. The cousins are very alike. After the “Lord God” bird was supposedly rediscovered, avian search parties rushed to see if they could suss out another, but in the end it seems to have been a Pileated after all. Should you see a Pilated yourself, feel free to yell “Lord God” if you want. They are themselves an impressive bird even if they aren’t rare or the subject of million-dollar search parties and best-selling books.

So it happened that recently I was watching and listening to woodpeckers at Hill-Stead. The ever-present Downy and Red-Bellied woodies popped up and down tree trunks like mechanical birds. Pretty soon a Hairy Woodpecker made his presence known with a demanding call note and a Flicker sang out his wild call. Four different woodpeckers in less than ten minutes is pretty good. Next, I noticed a Sapsucker furtively drilling a well high up in a Hemlock. So I had five out of the six! I never figured on getting the Pileated, and I wasn’t seriously looking. Yet suddenly there it was, crazy laugh and all. What’s more, I was able to follow his flight through the trees and watch him hop into his roost. All six woodpeckers at the same time! It made me get a feel for when to say “I’ve had enough” and “I’ve seen enough”, with respect to woodpeckers anyway. Although I have seen them all, I can assure you, I haven’t seen enough!

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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16 Responses to “The Sufficiency of Small Things”

  1. Jack Estes Says:

    Found your fascinating comments about the Lord God Bird and thought I’d mention the book I just published, written by Russell Hill, with that title (Lord God Bird). It’s fiction, and it features a young man who is obsessed with finding that rumored creature. The book has received phenomenal reviews. Thought you might be interested.

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Thank you very much! Congratulations on your book. I would love to read it, and I plan to. Warm Regards, Diane Tucker

  2. Gloris Says:

    I love the Pileated. We have them here in our woods in Illinois. They do make you want to exclaim, “Lord God”. Who else deserves the credit? 🙂 Anyway, I’ve enjoyed perusing your blog. Gloris

  3. Sarah Johnston Says:

    That photo looks like a Red-Shafted (western) variant of the Northern Flicker. The ones we have in CT are Yellow-Shafted, with a black “moustache” ad yellow wing linings. You can see the red edges on the bird in the photo. –Sarah

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      You are exactly right! Good eyes-I used the “red-shafted” flicker picture because it showed the mustache so well! Keep your well-trained eye open for a blog about “your” harlequin soon. Cheers, Diane

  4. wildlifewatcher Says:

    This was a very enjoyable post! I learned a lot about all of the various Woodpeckers. I am a novice bird and wildlife watcher here on the beautiful Cumberland Plateau in TN.

    • Diane Tucker Says:

      Thank you! Woodpeckers are fascinating. I just read an article that they have suspended the search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, under the assumption that if there are any left, it is too difficult and too expensive to find them. Naturally, the population would be quite fragmented, and awfully hard to locate. I hope you check in again and read some more. Regards, Diane

  5. KikiB Says:

    My 4-year old daughter and I saw a Downy outside of her bedroom window yesterday evening around 7pm, pecking around the trees. It was gorgeous. It looked just like the picture above with gray chest and a black ladder print on its sides to its black back and a brilliant orange head of “hair” feathers.

    • Diane Tucker Says:

      There is nothing I enjoy more than sharing nature with children. “Hair feathers” is a great description! Thanks for reading, Diane

  6. Sharon Creech Says:

    Yesterday posted a pic of a visiting pileated woodpecker at Love watching it.

  7. Diane Tucker Says:

    Hi Sharon! Great picture of the Pileated. And I love your squirrel series too! I had a group of kids out today learning about squirrels and tangentially, animal homes. What luck-a squirrel conveniently jumped into a dray right in front (all right, overhead) of us. I enjoyed YOUR blog very much, as well as the books. If you want to you can reply to me off the blogs at so that I can tell you how much I enjoy reading your “stuff”! Little people (though not midgets) enjoy it, too. In any case, maybe I can be on your list of blogs I read? I am fiddling about with a similar list for my blog, but need the Hill-Stead folk who know computers and code to put it up there for me. Either way, thank you for writing and reading! Diane

  8. Marcie Charest Says:

    I had a “Lord God” bird moment in South Carolina several years ago. I had actually never seen a Pileated Woodpecker before and it was around the time of the sighting of the phantom Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, so the birds were on my mind. I was staying on Kiawah Island and went for a bike ride on my own on. I came down a quiet street and this large bird flew right over my head. I nearly fell off my bike just trying to track it in the air (hence the “Lord God” moment.) I realized quickly it was a Pileated Woodpecker, because of all of the media attention on it and the Ivory-Billed at the time. In all the years my family has been visiting Kiawah Island, SC that was one of my favorite bird moments (the other was seeing my first Glossy Ibis and wait there is also the ‘pelican patrol’, but both sightings are stories for another time!) Now I have officially seen all of CT’s woodpeckers, but only five of them in the state (Pileated and Red-Headed in SC.)
    Love your blog Diane (and that is not just because I work with you!)

  9. Woodpecker Photos | Pafos Photos Says:

    […] That leaves six woodpeckers […]

  10. gitta rohweder Says:

    Hi Diane!

    I am writing for advice. You seem to know and love woodpeckers.
    We live in Norway (moved here from Massachusetts) spring has just begun and a woodpecker has been pecking the outer wall of our house, which is right next to a wooded area.
    A hole was made, some of which was pecked out actually last fall. And this week a little bird with a yellow bib is carrying all kinds of building materials into the opening.
    I am mystified. How could he mistake my house for a tree? Did he start last fall and is finishing up his handiwork now? And where did he stay during the winter? And what do we do before the Mrs arrives? Is boarding up the accomocations and covering the area with a birdhouse a solution?
    Do you have any advice?

    Kind regards, Gitta

    • Diane Tucker Says:

      Dear Gitta,
      This is a tough one! Your woodpecker friend sounds like a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker to me. Sometimes woodpeckers will peck on houses that have insects in them. Carpenter bees are a big draw. But your problems sounds a bit more complex. Sapsuckers are present in winter but in fewer numbers than the rest of the year. They go south in winter by and large. I think your fellow discovered your house last fall and made a start on some housing he hoped to use to attract a mate. He hasn’t mistaken your house for a tree, he just thinks it is wood in a good spot, and obviously it isn’t too difficult to excavate. I suppose it is possible to substitute a bird house as an alternative housing cavity, but I would consult with Massachusetts Audubon about that. There is undoubtedly a sanctuary of theirs near you and they are always a font of good information. For whatever it’s worth, I have never heard of that being done. Mrs. Sapsucker is probably there already, by the way. She may or may not select the side of your house as the kind of place she wants to set up housekeeping. Mr. Woodpecker has other models to show her. They tend to make a few “starter nests” to show the female what a good provider they are, then she selects. Or she dumps him for someone with more experience. The best advice I know is to scare him off. I have used mylar balloons to very good effect on this problem since I have had it at my own house. I take the balloon (un-inflated) and leaving a strip at the top I cut ribbons vertically so that there is a sort of fringe that will blow in the wind and generally move around. I would tack that up as close to the nest hole as I could. I might even use more than one. This also works well over windows that birds crash into thinking they are rival birds. I think this fellow may be back on another occasion, so keep your mylar balloons at hand. Please let me know how it goes.
      Warm Regards,
      Diane Tucker

  11. gitta rohweder Says:

    Hi Diane!
    Thanks for your vivd reply.
    I knew this was an interesting problem.
    We’ll set about solving it now.
    Will share the results.
    Many thanks, Gitta.

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