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Woodpeckers

Among the resident species, a group of birds worth treating separately are the woodpeckers. There are 8 species found in Virginia. The only rare species is the red-cockaded woodpecker which exists only in the old growth pine forests of southeastern Virginia, south of the James River. It is a small bird only 8 inches tall with horizontal black and white stripes on its back. However, its distinctive features are its large white cheek patches. Despite its name, no red is visible on this bird to the unaided eye.

The red-cockaded woodpecker requires living pine trees greater than 80 years of age in which to excavate its cavity. The cavity is further identified by a pattern of little divots around it, created by the woodpeckers to generate a constant flow of resin. The resin flows out and drys on the tree creating a candle effect. This species depends on pine forests for its existence, but is extremely rare in Virginia and is a federally endangered species. If you are aware of trees with cavities fitting this description, prompt notification of authorities would be appreciated.

Of the seven remaining species, one of them is migratory and occurs in eastern Virginia only as a winter visitor: the yellow-bellied sapsucker. It sustains itself by drilling horizontal rows of holes up and down the trunks of several tree species. It then dines on the sap flow and takes nearby insects as well. This species depends on hardwood or mixed forests or woodlots.

The only other unique species of woodpecker in Virginia is the northern flicker, formerly called the yellow-shafted flicker. It spends much of its time on the ground, especially on grassy lawns and bare spots, where it gleans ants from the ground and digs for grubs and beetles. It depends on woodlots with dead trees for its cavity nests, making use of either hardwoods or pines.

The remaining five species include the pileated, red-headed, red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers. Pileated woodpeckers are as large as crows, with full red crests. It is the only crested species in Virginia. These five species tend to favor large tracts of mostly mature forest, although woodlots are still used. They all nest in cavities excavated in dead trees and prefer hardwood forests over pine. However, most do well in mixed forests, especially if there is a nearby water source. Red-headeds are found most frequently in association with beaver dammed hardwood swamps. Management for these species places an emphasis on mature hardwood or mixed forests, especially those in association with lowlying areas. Pileateds and hairy woodpeckers are the least common of these species. They tend to be more reclusive and favor larger tracts of forest away from disturbances. Downy woodpeckers are showing the greatest decline in Virginia, probably due to loss of cavities to competing species or to lack of remnant cavity trees after a timber harvest.

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