Share it! Science : See it? Share it! GBBC and Woodpeckers Galore!

See it? Share it! GBBC and Woodpeckers Galore!

The Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC, comes around every February. (For current dates of the count, check out the website here.) 

The GBBC is an event by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society. It has been happening yearly since 1998. All you have to do to participate is bird watch for 15 minutes on one of the days of the count. Then you log your findings at the GBBC website. This is the third year we've participated and we're excited to see how this year's species compare to the past 2 years.This is a great way to get the whole family into bird watching!

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As you know from some of my other posts (tufted titmouse and barred owl) I love feeding and watching birds. I was very excited to have a new woodpecker visit our feeder this year in addition to the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers that we've seen frequently in the past. The new kid on the block is a Red-bellied woodpecker, with a brilliant red head and a red patch on its belly. With the three species at the feeder, and an occasional Pileated woodpecker and Northern flicker in the backyard, we've got plenty of woodpeckers to observe.
Red-bellied woodpecker- note the zygodactyl foot! ©SBF

Some interesting features of the woodpecker as a group are their long tongues, zygodactyl feet, and their stiff tail feathers. The woodpecker lives up to its name by hammering away on wood to find insects to eat. Although it looks like it could be painful, this does not give them a headache. They have several adaptations to avoid this, and one of them is their tongue. The tongue is long so that it can stretch up into old wood and pull out insects. For storage it wraps around the back of the skull providing some extra shock absorption. For a good diagram of what this looks like check out this site.

Another important part of the woodpecker's anatomy are their zygodactyl feet. No, not pterodactyl! Zygodactyl refers to the orientation of the bird's toes. Woodpeckers have 2 facing front and 2 facing back. This allows them to climb and hold onto the trunks of trees. Most perching birds have anisodactyl feet, with 3 toes pointing front and 1 toe pointing back.
Hairy Woodpecker using its kickstand tail. ©SBF
Since the woodpeckers need good balance while they are hammering away, they use their stiff tail feathers as a prop or kickstand. This helps them to keep steady.

Although all woodpeckers are similar in many ways, they also each have defining features. Some are much easier to distinguish than others. For example, the Red-bellied woodpecker was unmistakable because of it's large bright red patch on its head. However, for many years I had to pull out the field guide to remember how to tell the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers apart. 

The biggest difference is their size. The Downy is about 3 inches smaller overall, about 6 inches to the Hairy's 9 inches. Another difference is the dainty beak of the Downy, versus the longer chisel-like beak of the Hairy. The other major difference is the outer tail feathers. The Downy has white barred with black, looking like spots. The Hairy most often just has white on the outer tail feathers. In both species the males have a bit of red on the head, whereas females do not.
The more petite male Downy woodpecker. ©SBF

I love all birds, but the woodpeckers are some of my favorites. I hope that you get a chance this year to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count! It is a fun way to be more intentional about your bird watching, and you might learn some things about bird identification in the process! 

There are many tools for identifying the birds in your yard. Some of my favorites are: 

I'd love to hear what you find in your yard and whether or not you participate in the GBBC. It is a great activity for school or home! Comment below, or e-mail me at:
Happy Bird Watching!
Red-bellied woodpecker enjoying some suet. ©SBF

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