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Red-headed Woodpecker granary tree

"I would not recommend to any one to trust their fruit to the Red-heads..." [John James Audubon]

An immature Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus, regards your narrator from his lofty perch in the crown of a massive White Oak. Note the beginnings of his namesake scarlet head-feathering coming in. By next spring, his noggin will be aflame with satiny ruby-red feathers.

While wandering about Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area last Thursday, I heard the raucous kwerrs of a Red-headed Woodpecker coming from a patch of oaks. The calls continued from the same general area for some time, while I focused on sorting through a passel of sparrows along a nearby field's edge.

After a bit, I abandoned the sparrows and wandered over to the vicinity of the woodpecker, with an idea as to what might be afoot. Mr. Red-head was fixated on these two large trees - a sprawling White Oak in the back, and a tall Pin Oak up front.

Many limbed and quite gnarly, the big White Oak was full of the nooks, crannies, and punky-tissued dead limbs that make for an ideal granary tree. A granary, as applied to woodpeckers, is a storage area for nuts that the birds harvest. The king of granaries is the Acorn Woodpecker of the western U.S. and Central America. Acorn Woodpeckers create elaborately engineered and architecturally striking granaries: neat rows of holes bored into trunks with each excavation nearly fitted with an acorn.

Red-headed Woodpecker granaries are more haphazard in design but serve the same purpose. Acorns collected by the birds are stuffed into tree crevices and fissures, into small cavities, and under bark. The purpose? Stocking in supplies for winter, the food to be withdrawn from the larder when times get tough.

Sure enough, my bird was busily provisioning his granary. He (could be a she, I'm not sure) made frequent flights into the crown of the Pin Oak - right next door to the White Oak granary tree - to pluck acorns from the limbs. Twisting about in the manner of a chickadee, the Red-head deftly detached the shiny round marblelike fruit.

From my experience, Red-headed Woodpeckers covet Pin Oak acorns if they're available. Killdeer Plains' thick wet clayey soils support scads of Pin Oaks, and it's no coincidence that Red-headed Woodpeckers also abound at this site. As can be seen from the model's thumbnail (me, thank you very much!), Pin Oak acorns are tiny little affairs - perfect for Red-headed Woodpeckers to snatch, carry, and stash.

Immediately after wrestling an acorn free, our woodpecker would fly back into the crown of his granary tree, and select an appropriate cupboard for his plunder. He had several distinct hiding spots scattered throughout the tree, and I could discern no rhyme or reason for why he would sometimes take an acorn here, then over there the next round. But I, obviously, am not a Red-headed Woodpecker and thus not privy to the inner workings of their keen minds.

Ah! Our boy has found a suitable hiding spot! He prepares to stuff the oak fruit in.

After pushing the acorn into the crevice - this one is probably 25-30 feet up in the tree - he carefully tamps it into position with soft blows from his chisel-like bill.

At this time of year, when the acorn crop is ripe and the winter's cold winds are right around the corner, Red-headed Woodpeckers work double-time at provisioning their granaries. This woodpecker probably made one round trip about every five minutes or so, and likely spent a good chunk of his day at this task. By the time he's done, that old oak tree will probably have hundreds of acorns stuffed throughout its limbs. Its bank vault of acorns will serve the bird well when food becomes lean in the dead of winter.


Lori Sorth said…
Really beautiful pictures Jim! Great story!
Sharkbytes said…
I've seen quite a few of them again in the past few years- makes me happy.

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