I was under the mistaken impression that everyone loved woodpeckers with their striking black, white and red plumage, and distinctive behavior. My sister-in-law has taught me otherwise. She has a Red-bellied that keeps her awake at night by its drumming and drilling on the side of her cedar shake home. Countless holes through the siding and sheathing and even into the insulation have caused mounting repair bills. She now hangs gaudy Christmas tinsel year-round on the corner of the house to scare them off, all to no avail. I’m afraid that more lethal interventions are now being considered.
Despite this I remain a strong admirer of the Picidae family of birds. There are 25 species of woodpeckers in North America and 220 worldwide. They vary widely in size but all have relatively short legs, long toes, and strong tails to support them upright against the tree trunk. Their flight is rather slow and undulating. The Flickers and Sapsuckers are migratory, depending on insects year-round, but the remainder are sedentary with a more diverse diet. Woodpecker vocalizations are rather primitive, but loud and distinctive, often described as a descending rattle.
But where they really excel is with their staccato drumming ability–sorry sister-in-law. I used to think that this was just the sound made by the bird’s search for food in the bark. In reality it is a much more sophisticated communication tool used also for staking out breeding territory, attracting a mate (and maintaining the bond), and general communication–“I’m on my way home with more bugs.”
The cadences are somewhat species specific. Flickers and Sapsuckers have random, discontinuous patterns sounding like Morse Code. The large Pileated has a loud, deep sonorous drumbeat that slowly diminishes in amplitude as it increases in frequency. The Red-bellied drums at 19 beats per second, the Downy at 17 bps, while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker starts with a short roll, pauses, and ends with two brief rolls of 2-3 beats each. I guess I’ll have to consider adding a stopwatch to my birding paraphernalia.
The force that a woodpecker generates by banging his head against a tree trunk is many times the maximum force that a human head and brain can survive. There are a number of adaptations that make this possible. The bird’s skull is thick and highly trabeculated, the neck muscles are strong, and the beak itself is slightly flexible, all helping to dissipate the force of the blow. They also have a third inner eyelid to keep the eyeball from popping out at impact.
The Hairy has the most bizarre adaptation. This bird has a very long and sticky tongue to reach deep into the tree. The tongue is retractable via an elaborate system of pulleys and muscles into a long tunnel which extends from the throat, encircling the base, back, and top of the skull, finally ending in the front at the base of the upper mandible.
The Sapsuckers peck hundreds of perfectly parallel holes, encircling the tree and creating “sap wells”. The birds feed on the sap but also on the myriad insects it attracts. The endangered Red-cockaded also thrives on the sap of the large live pines of the South. In fact I found this uncommon bird in Florida by first locating the large hardened resin patches on its preferred trees and then waiting patiently for the bird to show up.
The Acorn is a communal clown-like bird appropriately found on our “Left Coast”. It forms small breeding flocks of several males and females along with some non-breeding young adults, all sharing in the incubation and feeding duties. The bird is famous for the precisely drilled holes, each packed with a single acorn hoarded for future consumption. These “granary trees” have been known to hold up to 50,000 acorns and are jealously defended by the commune.
I suspect all birders are familiar with the Ivory Woodpecker story. The last sightings of this large, glorious bird were in the bottomland forests of Louisiana and Arkansas in 2005. But you’ll notice that all the extinct designations are qualified by “presumed”, “probably”, and “likely”. Whenever I’m birding in the forests of the deep South and a Pileated flies by, I always take an extra glimpse of the bill color. You just never know.