Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood

Walking along beneath the Riverside Park retaining wall, the dog and I hear a miniature ruckus in the underbrush.

Yellow stars lie scattered on the path.

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.

Aha! A wee woodpecker.

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?

From Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Birds, Fall, In the City, NYC Parks, October, Riverside Park, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History

Tags: , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

13 Comments on “Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood”


  1. […] not just a red cap. Which means the bird was, without a doubt, a male Red-bellied woodpecker. (In Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood, I made the case for calling it the Little Red Riding Hood […]

  2. p hoey Says:

    Marvelous blogorific connecting life in the wilds of Manhattan with
    beuteous Betty Boop! Thank you, thank you, for starting my day right.


    • Thank you. Betty is a wonder, and those Fleischer boys were just brilliantly out of their gourds. They worked with Cab Calloway on a couple of dazzling cartoons. I’ll have to locate those and create a reason to post them.

  3. Wild_Bill Says:

    Although I have never lived in a city, nor have I ever wanted to, your blog entries make me realize that life in urban areas is fascinating. I have found a new appreciation for the wild in the city, and I wanted to thank you for this gift.


    • You are so welcome! It is fascinating, and often surprising – and we will, I suspect, be in for more and more natural surprises as the animals’ world continues to change pretty dramatically due to human development of land, over-population, and climate change. I’m on coyote alert, now, waiting to see if any venture into the city this winter. Also looking forward to good park sightings of resident raptors as the leaves drop off the trees.

  4. Charlotte Says:

    Ok not sure what this has to do with girl’s eyes (although, very intriguing) but I also loved your line about the golden glow of light underneath the flickers’ wings. And now onto red-bellied woodpeckers: Louise and I went hiking in Idyllwild this weekend, an hour and a half from L.A., at an altitude of 6000 ft., and wherever we looked we saw woodpeckers in the pines. These looked like red-bellied woodpeckers but must have been Acorns. These guys drill holes the exact size of an acorn into the trunk then hammer them in with their beaks so squirrels won’t get at them. I’ve never seen a tree trunk like this: full of perfectly shaped acorn holes. (I just read where the woodpeckers can make up to 50,000 holes in one “granary” tree.)

    Delightful post!


    • Wow! Those Acorn woodies sound amazing. I wonder how the tree feels about that work,. Is it seriously damaged? Or is the whole thing somehow a symbiotic relationship? I’d like to see that for myself!

  5. Barbara Says:

    Love woodpeckers – hadn’t thought you would have them in the Big Apple, but of course you would. Nature goes everywhere!

    Your photos are great. I have a pair of red-bellies that visit my suet feeders all winter… they are supposed to be Carolinian birds, only in southern Ontario and well south of NYC – but obviously global warming or climate change has them moving further north… Wonderful post…


    • Thanks, Barbara. Yes, there are many woodpeckers in NYC from Flickers to Downies and Hairies to Red-Bellied and more. Glad you have red-bellieds to watch all winter. They’re such strange and fascinating birds.


  6. “Yeux de fille en extase”! What on earth are you reading, good sir? Document about cravats, indeed.

    Thank you for the i.d. help. I am pretty sure it’s a Downy. Next time, I’ll focus more on the beak.

  7. mthew Says:

    The Red-bellied’s red belly is subtle indeed, more of a blush, really — perhaps the color I came across recently in a document about cravats (one style had the color “yeux de fille en extase”) — and requires the viewer to be close, underneath, with the light slanting in — if I may riff off your lovely “Renaissance vision of the Assumption” line — a line of light direct from the sun.

    The difference between a Hairy and Downy is almost all size. Your’s was probably a Downy, which are more common in the city. The thing to look for is the beak. In the Downy, the beak is short, less than the width of the bird’s head. In the Hairy, the beak is long, as long as the width of the bird’s head. Subtle, but practice is all.

    Look also for Yellow-bellied sapsuckers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: