Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Skunk's colors, bird's tapping stump couple

By STACEY COLE July 15. 2017 2:12AM
A pileated woodpecker inspects a standing dead tree for possible ant r beetle colonies. (Union Leader file)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on May 2, 1998.

A SKUNK’S ODD coloration was one subject of inquiry from a Chester reader who wrote in part: “My reason for writing is twofold. First, a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were driving on the Raymond Road in Chester (Route 102) when I saw a skunk in someone’s driveway and asked my husband to turn around so that he might see it too. I needed a witness as the skunk was brown and white, not black and white. It had stripes on both sides and white on the end of its tail. It was still daylight so we both got a good look at it as it turned from the road and walked back into the person’s yard.

“Secondly, I saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker on a tree in my front yard, and when reading your column noted that a number of people in southern New Hampshire had reported seeing them. This one has been entertaining the neighborhood by drumming on my mailbox. Someone said it was like a mating call and I wondered if you knew the answer to this behavior.”

I have checked my literature to see what I cold find on the coloration of a skunk. John James Audubon, best known for his painting and writing on birds, also recorded a great deal of information and produced many excellent paintings of mammals. With respect to the coloration of skunks, Audubon wrote: “This species varies so much in colour that there is some difficulty in finding two specimens alike. The under fur on all those portions of the body which are dark coloured, is dark brown; in those parts which are light coloured, it is white from the roots. These under colours, however, are concealed by thick, longer, coarser hairs that are smooth and glossy. There is a narrow white stripe running to a point on the top of the head; a patch of white, of about two inches in length, and of the same breadth, commences on the occiput and covers the upper parts of the neck; on each side of the vertebrae of the tail there is a broad longitudinal stripe of three-fourths of its length; the tail is broadly tipped with white, interspersed with a few black hairs. The colour on every other part of the body is blackish-brown.”

With respect to the yellow-bellied sapsucker whacking away on our reader’s mailbox, this activity is not all that unusual.

Most birds give notice to other birds as to the bounds of their territory by singing. Although woodpeckers can vocalize, they were not granted what might be called quality singing ability. Thus, they more frequently drum as a substitute. Mailboxes, drain pipes and metal roof ridges are frequently used as sounding boards to carry their message.

An interesting bird excited a Londonderry couple who wrote in part: “Yesterday (May 1) my husband and I saw a pileated woodpecker at our South Londonderry home. This bird was really big, about the size of a black crow, and had all the markings of the picture in our bird book.

“We are ‘seniors,’ born in New England, and have never seen this bird before. We sure were excited to have the thrill of spotting an uncommon bird.”

Pileated woodpeckers are rather primeval looking birds and are most arresting in appearance, especially with the display of the brilliant red crest that crowns its black and white face. This member of the woodpecker family has a powerful bill and when it is used in “drumming” the sound loudly reverberates through the wooded hills.

As our reader noted, pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) are crow-sized members of the woodpecker family. They measure from 16 inches to 19 1/2 inches in length. Their genus name is from the Greek work, “drys,” a tree, especially an oak, and “kopis,” cleaver; thus, a tree cleaver or wood cutter. The species name, pileatus, is dervied from Latin, meaning capped or crested.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

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