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The Birdwatcher as Ecological Detective


by Robert McFarlane, Houston Bird Survey Coordinator

Woodpeckers are habitat specialists, requiring trees or tree-like vegetation. Nine woodpecker species have been reported in the bird survey. Of the three primarily insectivorous Picoides species, the tiny Downy Woodpecker is the most widespread, found everywhere in Harris County. It penetrates deep into the urban environment and is the only woodpecker reported from the downtown area, where trees are sparse, observed at J. Bute Park along Buffalo Bayou. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a pinewoods specialist. Although significant pine and pine-hardwood forests persist in northern Harris County, they no longer provide suitable habitat for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Only one observation has been reported in our survey, during June in The Woodlands, near the Jones State Forest that supports a remnant population of these birds. The observation locality is just beyond our distribution map. The larger Hairy Woodpecker has become rare in our area. The survey includes one June observation from Jones State Forest to our north and two January observations from Brazos Bend State Park to our south.

Three of the larger omnivorous Melanerpes species have been reported. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is widely distributed across the county, reaching the periphery, but apparently not penetrating, the downtown area. The Red-headed Woodpecker is less abundant but widely distributed across the county, with a number of observations inside of the Loop 610. The survey has only one observation of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a summer straggler that persisted at a bird feeder inside of Beltway 8 for several weeks.

Two specialist woodpeckers are less commonly observed in Harris County. The Northern Flicker may be found during both summer and winter and penetrates into the Loop 610. It feeds primarily on ants on tree trunks and the ground. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is widespread during the winter, including the urban areas. They create and tend 'traplines' of sap wells that attract insects.

The Pileated Woodpecker is the largest species found in Harris County. It requires the largest territory and home range and might be expected to be absent from the urban area. However, it manages to persist wherever sufficient forest can be found, including Memorial and MacGregor Parks within the Loop 610. Despite the high profile publicity received by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in recent years, only one was reported to the survey. A check of aerial images of the site revealed suitable habitat for Pileated Woodpeckers but unlikely to support Ivory-bills, which formerly did exist in Harris County. This may attest to the efficacy of our survey participants.

Pileated Woodpecker map
Pileated Woodpecker
Larger, PDF Version
Species Profile
Red-bellied Woodpecker map
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Larger, PDF Version
Species Profile
Red-headed Woodpecker map
Red-headed Woodpecker
Larger, PDF Version
Species Profile
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker map
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Larger, PDF Version
Species Profile


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