Exception to the Rule – Woodpeckers

Exception to the Rule – Woodpeckers by Tom Wood

Early in an ornithological education you learn about the adaptations that woodpeckers have for their unique lifestyle. Wikipedia states” Woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks all possess zygodactyl feet. Zygodactyl feet consist of four toes, the first (hallux) and the fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward. This foot arrangement is good for grasping the limbs and trunks of trees.” In combination with stiff tail feathers this allows the woodpecker to climb a vertical tree trunk like a lineman with spiked boots and a belt.

Our target bird for the morning was a woodpecker, one that had eluded us for many years. And it has only three toes. Though I had spent a lot of time in the Colorado coniferous forests they call home, the American Three-toed Woodpecker was a “nemesis bird” for me until last year. This year I hoped to share my sighting with Sheri. It’s never a good idea to have a life bird your spouse hasn’t yet seen.

American Three-toed Woodpecker © Tom Wood

Hoping that lightning would strike twice in the same place, we drove through thousands of acres of forest to the exact spot where I found the bird (with a little help from the Colorado Field Ornithologists website) last year. Amazingly, two minutes after we got out of the car a faint tapping led us to a beautiful male American Three-toed Woodpecker high in a spruce tree. Later that morning at a nearby lake, Three-toed Woodpeckers seemed to be following us along the trail and allowed close study and photography. It’s exciting to find a new bird, particularly one you had looked for many times, but is even better to have a chance to watch their behavior.

Now a trip to the northern Rockies for the Black-backed Woodpecker is in order. Once considered conspecific with the American Three-toed, it also has three toes. Something about the oddballs attracts me.

Sheri and Tom (Southwest)

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