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Ecological niches of European and North American woodpeckers - how do they compare?

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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 12:08   #1
Sangahyando
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Ecological niches of European and North American woodpeckers - how do they compare?

Being a bird family with a relatively modest numbers of species on both continents, woodpeckers are nonetheless fascinating for many people, including myself. I have first hand experience with all but one of the European species, but only know their Nearctic counterparts from webcam feeds and literature. Recently (and since it occasionally comes up on sites like this), I've come to ask myself how they compare between continents.
I've gotten as far as:
Black Woodpecker (WP) - Pileated W. (NA)(closely related, similar in size and apparently in diet, too)
Green Woodpecker (WP) - Northern Flicker (NA)(not closely related, but similar otherwise)
Syrian Woodpecker (WP) - Red-headed W. (NA)(probably?)

But how do the others line up? For instance, I'm under the impression that the Downy Woodpecker in NA seems to be doing better than the similarly-sized Lesser Spotted one here in Europe, so maybe it inhabits a somewhat different niche? Of course, ecosystems are never 100% the same on different continents, but I still think it might be fun and insightful to compare them.
Hopefully this is the right sub-forum.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 12:56   #2
Hauksen
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Hi,

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Originally Posted by Sangahyando View Post
Recently (and since it occasionally comes up on sites like this), I've come to ask myself how they compare between continents.
I think it's pretty difficult even on the same continent :-)

You didn't mention the Grey-headed Woodpecker in Europe ... I think it's sort of odd that its range has great overlaps with that of the Green Woodpecker, but somehow it doesn't like the northern parts of Poland, Germany and France despite being quite at home in Norway apparently.

My thought is, can it really be considered a given that a bird is at the full extent of its potential range at any moment? If not, making a comparison based on its presence or absence in any specific location might not yield meaningful results.

(Since you're from Kiel, I wonder if you're familiar with the solitary Grey-headed Woodpecker from the Duvenstedter Brook? That one certainly got me interested in the topic! :-)

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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 18:30   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sangahyando View Post
Being a bird family with a relatively modest numbers of species on both continents, woodpeckers are nonetheless fascinating for many people, including myself. I have first hand experience with all but one of the European species, but only know their Nearctic counterparts from webcam feeds and literature. Recently (and since it occasionally comes up on sites like this), I've come to ask myself how they compare between continents.
I've gotten as far as:
Black Woodpecker (WP) - Pileated W. (NA)(closely related, similar in size and apparently in diet, too)
Green Woodpecker (WP) - Northern Flicker (NA)(not closely related, but similar otherwise)
Syrian Woodpecker (WP) - Red-headed W. (NA)(probably?)

But how do the others line up? For instance, I'm under the impression that the Downy Woodpecker in NA seems to be doing better than the similarly-sized Lesser Spotted one here in Europe, so maybe it inhabits a somewhat different niche? Of course, ecosystems are never 100% the same on different continents, but I still think it might be fun and insightful to compare them.
Hopefully this is the right sub-forum.
I agree concerning Black and Green Woodpeckers vs Pileated and Flicker.

Does LS Woodpecker need many tall trees? Downy will visit suburban yards with just a few taller trees, whereas something like Hairy Woodpecker is more of a woodland bird.

I have no idea what Syrian Woodpecker's habitat/behavior is. In the eastern US, Red-headed is often very local and not doing well. It prefers areas with plenty of dead snags, a rapidly diminishing habitat.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 19:58   #4
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I'd probably pair Great Spotted with Downy and Lesser Spot with Hairy based on habitat, despite the size flip.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 21:27   #5
Sangahyando
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Originally Posted by Hauksen View Post
My thought is, can it really be considered a given that a bird is at the full extent of its potential range at any moment? If not, making a comparison based on its presence or absence in any specific location might not yield meaningful results.
Well yeah, it's difficult. Particularly with regions such as Britain which only has four members of the family (I'm wondering if there wouldn't have been populations of some of the other species, historically?).


Quote:
(Since you're from Kiel, I wonder if you're familiar with the solitary Grey-headed Woodpecker from the Duvenstedter Brook? That one certainly got me interested in the topic! :-)
I haven't seen that particular individual, no. I usually see Grey-headed Woodpeckers farther south in Germany (in my state, I regularly see Black and Middle Spotted W, though. And LSW, when I'm lucky. Green Woodpecker is surpirisingly rare up here). TBH I have no idea which American species they're most like.


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I have no idea what Syrian Woodpecker's habitat/behavior is. In the eastern US, Red-headed is often very local and not doing well. It prefers areas with plenty of dead snags, a rapidly diminishing habitat.
LSW is a typical inhabitant of riparian and wetland forests with natural habitat (lots of dead trees etc.), though it also occurs in other forest habitats apparently.
Syrian W. is a typical species of orchards and other half-open terrain in SW Europe, and has spread into Central Europe as well. It seems less dependent on actual forests, AFAIK. Maybe Red-headed also overlaps with White-backed (rare and threatened in Scandinavia and Germany), which needs deciduous forests with lots of dead wood, in terms of niche.


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I'd probably pair Great Spotted with Downy and Lesser Spot with Hairy based on habitat, despite the size flip.
That's interesting, hadn't thought of that. Obviously, there's also the Three-toed pair, I'm guessing they're very similar too.

Last edited by Sangahyando : Saturday 16th February 2019 at 21:33.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 22:37   #6
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The group of birds I really like!

In my opinion, there is little comparison of ecological niches of North American and European woodpeckers. Not least that there is over two times more species in North America than in Europe.

Among others, the whole ecological niche of sapsuckers does not exist. Although European woodpeckers drink tree sap, no species makes it an obligate or main food source. The equivalent of very large Campephilus woodpeckers does not exist in Europe, and, interestingly, not even in Africa. There is no equivalent of Lewis's Woodpecker or Acorn Woodpecker.

European woodpeckers are divided into niches, but I think some previous posts don't describe these niches very well.

Black Woodpecker - large, Crow-sized woodpecker dependent on mature trees. Indeed it matches Pileated Woodpecker.

Green Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker divided between eating ants living in open grassy places and soft broadleaved trees.

Grey-headed Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker prefering soft broadleaved trees. Perhaps this is the closest equivalent of Northern Flicker.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - small, sparrow-sized woodpecker specializing in dead thinner branches of broadleaved trees. It is most commonly found, indeed, in swampy places where changes of water table produce die-offs of trees, especially die-offs of upper parts of tree crowns. But it certainly occurs also in dry broadleaved and mixed forest. Its near-extinction in Britain can be linked to disapperance of riparian and carr woodland.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker accepting any habitat type. In Southern Europe, where several competitors are present, it occurs mostly in poor coniferous forests (a bit like Red-cockaded Woodpecker). However, in Britain it clearly prefers old broad-leaved woodland (in continental Europe, it is largely outcompeted there by Middle Spotted Woodpecker). In Germany and Western Europe it is common in small woodlots and urban green spacies (largely outcompeted by Syrian Woodpecker in SE Europe).

Syrian Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker of open habitat with scattered broadleaved trees.

Middle-spotted Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker specialist of broadleaved forests.

White-backed Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker specialist of dead trees and dead branches of live trees.

Three-toed Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker specialist of dead spruce trees. In North America, its niche is divided by two related species: American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers.

However, note that niches of all European woodpeckers overlap and they would elastically expand to use any food source. Among others, where there are outbreaks of green caterpillars in forests, most species of woodpeckers bring mostly caterpillars to their chicks, rather than any wood-bornig insects.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2019, 22:48   #7
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Among others, the whole ecological niche of sapsuckers does not exist. Although European woodpeckers drink tree sap, no species makes it an obligate or main food source. The equivalent of very large Campephilus woodpeckers does not exist in Europe, and, interestingly, not even in Africa. There is no equivalent of Lewis's Woodpecker or Acorn Woodpecker.
That might be true, but you've left out the Wryneck


Quote:
Greater Spotted Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker accepting any habitat type. In Southern Europe, where several competitors are present, it occurs mostly in poor coniferous forests (a bit like Red-cockaded Woodpecker). However, in Britain it clearly prefers old broad-leaved woodland (in continental Europe, it is largely outcompeted there by Middle Spotted Woodpecker). In Germany and Western Europe it is common in small woodlots and urban green spacies (largely outcompeted by Syrian Woodpecker in SE Europe).
And yet, it is by far the most common of the lot. Probably to do with its tolerance of humans and its generalist nature.


Quote:
Middle-spotted Woodpecker - mid-sized woodpecker specialist of broadleaved forests.
It might be worth adding that it prefers probing the bark of rough-barked trees to the sort of brute-force hammering that larger species conduct. I almost always find this species on oaks.

Last edited by Sangahyando : Saturday 16th February 2019 at 23:05.
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 01:26   #8
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In the eastern US, Red-headed is often very local and not doing well. It prefers areas with plenty of dead snags, a rapidly diminishing habitat.
That sounds more like Middle Spotted ecology.


Syrian is well adapted to more open landscapes and tolerant of heavily altered habitats like gardens - so maybe more comparable to Red-bellied?


Needless to say, Acorn Wp has no equivalent in Europe, and Wryneck none in NA.
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 01:33   #9
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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - small, sparrow-sized woodpecker specializing in dead thinner branches of broadleaved trees. It is most commonly found, indeed, in swampy places where changes of water table produce die-offs of trees, especially die-offs of upper parts of tree crowns. But it certainly occurs also in dry broadleaved and mixed forest. Its near-extinction in Britain can be linked to disapperance of riparian and carr woodland.
I suspect LSW's scarcity in Europe (and particularly Britain) compared to the similar-sized Downy Wp is related to the greater diversity, and more aggressive nature, of Europe's Paridae species, particularly Great and Blue Tits. They are dominant over LSW and will evict it from newly-dug nest holes (-> no breeding for that year for the LSW); their populations are additionally artificially high due to their domination of garden bird feeders. America's Poecile species are less aggressive, just like Europe's Poecile species.
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 02:50   #10
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I suspect LSW's scarcity in Europe (and particularly Britain) compared to the similar-sized Downy Wp is related to the greater diversity, and more aggressive nature, of Europe's Paridae species, particularly Great and Blue Tits. They are dominant over LSW and will evict it from newly-dug nest holes (-> no breeding for that year for the LSW); their populations are additionally artificially high due to their domination of garden bird feeders. America's Poecile species are less aggressive, just like Europe's Poecile species.
What about Tufted Titmouse and other Baeolophus species, though? I thought they were similar to our larger tit species?
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 09:39   #11
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What about Tufted Titmouse and other Baeolophus species, though? I thought they were similar to our larger tit species?
Not sure! Don't know how aggressive they are.
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 15:53   #12
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In Europe Black-, Gray-headed-, Green Woody and Wryneck eats lots of Ants. Are there similar species in NA?
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 16:22   #13
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In Europe Black-, Gray-headed-, Green Woody and Wryneck eats lots of Ants. Are there similar species in NA?
Northern Flicker (and Gilded Flicker), as already mentioned near the start of the thread, for Green and Grey-headed
Pileated for Black (and like it, primarily on Camponotus ants)
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 16:26   #14
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To complicate matters even more, even in North America the habitats and lifestyles of these birds can be significantly different in different parts of the country.

Out east (NY, MI, WI, etc), I find Downy and Hairy pretty much overlapping completely in habitat use. Downy might be slightly more comfortable in suburbs than Hairy and overall more abundant, but otherwise they seem to get along pretty well together in the same environments.

In Southern California it's completely different. Downy is almost always found in lowland riparian environments, while Hairy is a mountain forest species. I am not sure I have birded a single location where I have observed both.
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 16:27   #15
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Northern Flicker (and Gilded Flicker), as already mentioned near the start of the thread, for Green and Grey-headed
Pileated for Black (and like it, primarily on Camponotus ants)
Now I noticed that Jurek had already mentioned it.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 02:11   #16
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To complicate matters even more, even in North America the habitats and lifestyles of these birds can be significantly different in different parts of the country.

Out east (NY, MI, WI, etc), I find Downy and Hairy pretty much overlapping completely in habitat use. Downy might be slightly more comfortable in suburbs than Hairy and overall more abundant, but otherwise they seem to get along pretty well together in the same environments.
In PA, I rarely see Hairy outside robust wooded areas. Downy comes into the suburbs and I've even seen them feeding on corn stalks in stubble fields.

Also, nobody has mentioned Red-bellied yet. To me they're somewhere between Downy and Hairy in habitat. They stick exclusively to the trees like Hairys, although they're found in tree-lines between fields which is definitely more Downy-like..

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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 09:58   #17
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Also, nobody has mentioned Red-bellied yet.
Post #8 whether I'm right or not (probably not!) is a different matter . . .
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 11:21   #18
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I've read that a few of the NA species also occasionally practice hawking, which I don't think our European species do. Or at least I've never seen them do it.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 12:56   #19
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I've read that a few of the NA species also occasionally practice hawking, which I don't think our European species do. Or at least I've never seen them do it.
What do you mean exactly by 'hawking'?
Certainly Great Spots will occasionally take bird prey (particularly by robbing nestboxes), but they don't go hawking in the classic sense of carrying a hawk on their wrist
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 13:58   #20
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What do you mean exactly by 'hawking'?
Certainly Great Spots will occasionally take bird prey (particularly by robbing nestboxes), but they don't go hawking in the classic sense of carrying a hawk on their wrist
My mistake, I seemed to remember it was an American expression for flycatching.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 20:46   #21
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My mistake, I seemed to remember it was an American expression for flycatching.
No mistake (just another case of Nutcracker expressing his disdain for American usage). “Hawking” is a common term for flycatching in the US. Both Red-headed and Lewis’s Woodpeckers hawk for insects, the Lewis’s (the only one of the two I’ve had much field experience with) doing so habitually, often in small flocks from the tops of tall trees.

This has been a very interesting thread, by the way. . ..
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 20:57   #22
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Not sure! Don't know how aggressive they are.
It has been my experience that Tufted Titmice are fairly mellow birds, even during nesting season. I think any of our woodpeckers could take over a titmouse nesting site, although I'm sure a few titmice are more aggressive.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 21:42   #23
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No mistake (just another case of Nutcracker expressing his disdain for American usage). “Hawking” is a common term for flycatching in the US.
Pretty common usage in the UK too! Not sure if use has changed in recent years but eg dragonflies hawk for insects ...
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 23:29   #24
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No mistake (just another case of Nutcracker expressing his disdain for American usage). “Hawking” is a common term for flycatching in the US.
Nope, not this time - the term is used in much the same way here too, but usually only when explicitly specified 'hawking for insects'. I didn't know US usage differed.

But since I've never seen or heard of UK woodpeckers hawking for insects, I wasn't sure if that was what was meant, and thought it might mean bird catching which ours do sometimes do. So I guess there is a significant behavioural difference between Old & New World woodpeckers here.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 23:47   #25
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Hi Dan,

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Pretty common usage in the UK too! Not sure if use has changed in recent years but eg dragonflies hawk for insects ...
Thanks a lot, quite useful to have a single verb for that!

Seems to be specialized terminology as it's not in the otherwise amazing etymonline dictionary:

https://www.etymonline.com/word/hawk#etymonline_v_6226

Good to know that "hawking" in the sense of (v.1) has no ornithological aspect as all. (I always thought this was a very weird verb, and suddenly I realize it's just the same as the German "hökern" :-)

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