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Always in Season: Woodpeckers and peregrines make news this week

I have a preference for finding birds in North Dakota, but my quest might take me across the Red River into Minnesota. The woodpeckers don’t respect state boundaries.

Red-headed woodpecker.jpg
An illustration of a red-headed woodpecker.
Mike Jacobs
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Again this week I am borrowing a sighting, this time from a friend in Mandan, N.D., who called the other day, talked for 20 minutes, all the while watching a red-headed woodpecker working over a tree in his backyard near the Missouri River.

I immediately resolved to find a red-headed woodpecker.

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These flashy birds nest in Grand Forks. Although they are not abundant, they are often seen, because they are conspicuous birds – and unmistakable.

The name describes the bird. Its head is indeed bright red. That’s not the whole of its striking appearance, however. The bird’s body is divided, just about evenly, between black and white. The back and tail are black and the belly is white. The wings have large white patches. So the woodpecker presents itself as a red, white and black bird.

My search for a red-headed woodpecker will begin along the Red River Greenway. I’ve seen woodpeckers there in the past, and I have a pretty good idea – actually ideas – of where to look. These are places where I’ve seen woodpeckers in the past.

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I have a preference for finding birds in North Dakota, but my quest might take me across the Red River into Minnesota. The woodpeckers don’t respect state boundaries. It’s possible to see the same bird in both states.

In some ways, I’ve been in pursuit of red-headed woodpeckers throughout my lifelong birding adventure. A child leafing through a bird book is likely to notice the red-headed woodpecker. I did, and I immediately wanted to find one.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

My boyhood search failed, however. The hills of Mountrail County just don’t have enough timber to sustain red-headed woodpeckers. My first sign of one – remarkably – occurred in southwestern North Dakota, also a land of few trees. I saw the red-headed woodpecker moving along a shelterbelt bordering a rural road.

The bird was likely a pioneer in a gradual westward expansion of woodpeckers. They followed the woods west, though a shelterbelt has little resemblance to a floodplain forest, such as occurs along both Missouri and the Red rivers in North Dakota.

Males and females are identical. The monograph on the species in the American Ornithological Society’s series “The Birds of North America” boldly proclaims, “This species is perhaps the best example of a sexually monomorphic woodpecker – males and females are indistinguishable in the field.”

The paragraph continues, “The red-headed woodpecker is the most expert and persistent flycatcher in its family and the most omnivorous and pugnacious of North American woodpeckers during both breeding and non-breeding seasons.”

In other words, the woodpecker isn’t fussy about its food, taking bugs on the wing and drilling them out of tree trunks and branches. They defend their territory vigorously, though I don’t think of them as particularly aggressive.

Although North Dakota has a reputation as a near treeless expanse, several species of woodpeckers are at home here. Eleven species of woodpeckers have been recorded in the state, Wikipedia tells me.

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Several are common residents, meaning they occur year-round, and they’re fairly likely to be encountered. That’s true of downy and hairy woodpeckers, which frequently turn up at backyard feeders in the winter months. The pileated woodpecker – another conspicuous bird – is also resident here, and is often sighted in Grand Forks during the winter months. These woodpeckers move into the woods to nest. Two other species are common, northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker. Both are migrants.

Wikipedia’s list includes Lewis’, acorn, three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers. These are accidental here, unlikely to be seen and likely to cause a big stir if they are.

***

Here’s a belated report about the local nesting peregrine falcons, provided by raptor expert Tim Driscoll, who banded three young peregrines early in June. Two of the birds are males, the third a female.

The female he named Hazel. The males are Glenn and Walter.

“Hazel” honors Hazel Sletten, a city employee, who abetted his efforts to get a box that might attract peregrines affixed to a city-owned water tower, the famous “Smiley,” which stood near the intersection of Washington and DeMers Avenue.

That was back in 2005. When “Smiley” was taken down, the birds moved to the water tower on the UND campus, where they have been nesting since 2010.

“Glenn” is named for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and later a U.S. senator. Walter is named for Walter Mondale, Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator and vice president.

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The birds have fledged, meaning that they are flying free of the nest and foraging on their own.

Hazel, Walter and Glenn bring the number of peregrines fledged in Grand Forks to 39 – a remarkable record in the recovery of this species once threatened with extinction.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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