Walking along beneath the Riverside Park retaining wall, the dog and I hear a miniature ruckus in the underbrush.
At first, I think the rustling leaves are being caused by a member of the sparrow flock that flittered low off the path as we approached. It’s getting to be the time of year when fallen leaves are so thick that even a single sparrow hopping and hunting among them can rustle and crunch like a large and mighty creature.
But something about this sound is just not sparrowish. We pause to peer into the tangle of leaves, and catch a glimpse of black, white and red moving in and out of view.
And then the little noise-maker reveals itself.
It’s a Downy woodpecker, or just possibly, a Hairy woodpecker, hopping around on the base of thin weedy stems.
Before this, the only woodpeckers I’ve seen hunting on or near the ground are Northern flickers. I recently came upon a flock of about eight flickers on a patch of green grass inside a little glade of trees out on Randall’s Island. They may well have been hunting ants, a favorite food. When I approached, the birds rose as one and, as they flew to the safety of nearby low branches, the gilded underside of their wings glowed golden like a Renaissance vision of the Assumption.
But back to the jaunty little red-capped fellow in Riverside Park. I wonder what he was eating. (I say “he” advisedly, as only the male sports the red cap.) Many insects are certainly still around – or were around, at least, until the weekend’s freak snowstorm. As botanist Marielle Anzelone observed in a lovely article in Friday’s NY Times, “A cicada is remarkable for this time of year, yet the forest is rich with invertebrates today. As ectotherms, they are soaking up this last bit of sun. They will soon be gone for the season.”
So what will the little woodpecker eat when the invertebrates are gone? At least one Downy woodpecker stays year-round in Riverside Park; I’ve seen him in winters past in the Forever Wild section above 116th Street. Does he dig for grubs beneath the bark? Or does he switch to a vegetarian diet?
Other woodpeckers also seem content to spend the winter in Manhattan. Last January, I saw a Red-bellied woodpecker high on the trunk of a majestic tree in Riverside Park.
Rumor (in the form of field guides) tells me that this bird has, as you might expect, a diagnostic red mark somewhere on its belly. But really, couldn’t someone have given it a more helpful name? Woodpeckers tend to hug the tree as they hop up. I’m not sure what the poor bird would have to be doing to give anyone a good look at its belly, other than lying, well, belly-up.
Note how the Red-bellied’s red markings extend all the way down the bird’s nape like a hoodie, while the cap of the Downy is perched atop its head where a cap should be.
How about we rename it as the Little Red Riding Hood Woodpecker? Much better. Now it can have its own theme song and even its own brilliant Betty Boop cartoon.
If I were a Red-bellied woodpecker, I’d jump at the chance to ally myself with this super-cool mixing of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ great 1966 song laid over the Fleischer Bros. wild 1931 cartoon. Check it out.
What do you think?