Sunday, December 7, 2008

About Woodpeckers...

I plan to include a series here on Woodpeckers…including a dozen species that have been observed in my county, here in south-central Colorado. Ted Floyd, in his book Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America states:

“This familiar family demonstrates a powerful concept in evolutionary biology—that of a group of organisms whose common ancestor ‘figured out’ long ago how to exploit an unoccupied ecological niche. Once the niche is ‘discovered’, in an evolutionary sense, there follows impressive diversification by the descendants of the discoverers.”
That’s how I see it, too. From there, woodpeckers developed specialization in the softwoods of conifers; and some which prefer Ponderosa pine with heartwood disease; some that prefer hardwoods, especially aspen; and others that prefer the desert life…saguaros; and many species prefer other diseased and dying trees. It’s a beautiful design.

Woodpeckers are well-adapted for a life on tree trunks and limbs, with stiff tail feathers which act as a brace for moving along vertical tree trunks. Their feet are also adapted for climbing and hanging. All woodpeckers have two toes pointing forward and either one or two toes pointing to the side or slightly backward, so woodpeckers are able to grip the surface of a tree with opposable toes.

Woodpeckers have evolved chisel-like bills coupled with strong neck and head muscles. These adaptations give them the ability to chip away bark and chop at wood to uncover insects and their eggs and grubs for food, as well as to create nesting cavities deep within a tree. The extremely long (up to four inches in some species) tongue, barbed with bristles, enables the bird to spear insects hidden deep in small holes. Many woodpeckers’ tongues are also sticky, which aids bringing up multiple insects deep within a crevasse.

In order to prevent brain damage from the rapid and repeated decelerations woodpeckers have evolved a number of adaptations to protect the brain. One is that the brain is of small size, and the orientation of the brain within the skull maximizes the area of contact between the brain and the skull, as well as the short duration of contact. In addition, a millisecond before contact with wood a thickened nictitans membrane (an inner eyelid of sorts) closes, protecting the eye from flying debris and the nostrils are protected in that they are often slit-like and have special feathers or bristles to cover them. Even a novice bird-watcher can easily identify a woodpecker by its behavior. Only two other birds, the much smaller brown creeper and the various nuthatches, spend so much time moving vertically on tree trunks. All woodpeckers can be recognized by their undulating flight—wings flapping as the bird goes up and wings folded into the body on the way down;
“flap and glide”.

Unfortunately for them, these birds are closely linked to forest health; mixed-age stands of healthy trees that offer food and cover and old, dying and diseased trees that offer different food as well as nesting sites. This species will not survive simply by ‘leaving them alone’ because we no longer leave tries after logging and spray or remove diseased and dead trees. Snags are what many species live for.

Because they are dependent on certain forest characteristics, including snags and trees with heart-rot for drumming, nesting, roosting, and feeding sites, woodpeckers are vulnerable to alterations of forest habitats. Short rotation logging or selective-cutting of trees with insect damage or heart-rot have caused population declines of some species of woodpeckers in many parts of the world. Intensive cutting of dead trees for firewood is also potentially harmful to woodpecker populations. The role of woodpeckers as forest insect predators should not be overlooked by those seeking to improve timber production. It’s my contention that we do more harm air-spraying forests with various poisons when the natural explosion of an insect is coupled with the natural explosion of bird health and population. I do not understand the constant manipulation of life for profit.

Wood-boring and other insects which are inaccessible to other birds are consumed by woodpeckers. Studies in parts of North America have estimated very large numbers of insects consumed; one black-backed woodpecker may eat 13,500 beetle larvae annually. In some areas, woodpeckers are thought to be able to eat enough larvae to prevent outbreaks of insects that damage and kill trees. Since wood and saw logs are very valuable, woodpeckers could play an important economic role. Aesthetically, their value is incalculable. The sound of a drumming woodpecker is a sign of the approach of spring. The sight of a three-toed or black-backed woodpecker is eagerly sought by bird-watchers. After pairing, nest construction begins. Woodpeckers do not bring in nest material; eggs are laid on the wood chips that dropped down during cavity construction.

Both sexes play a large role in nesting; both construct the nest site and share the duties of incubation, which takes about two weeks. A nest will usually consist of 2-5 round white eggs. Since these birds are cavity nesters their eggs do not need to be camouflaged and the white color helps the parents to see them in dim light. The eggs are incubated for about 11-14 days before the chicks are hatched. Young are altricial, meaning they are blind and naked at hatching. Both sexes develop a brood-patch and sit on the nest. Generally they share daytime duties, but the male is the one who most often takes the night-shift. The adults are kept busy, one obtaining food while the other broods the young. Once the young have grown feathers and can maintain their own body heat, both adults bring in food just to the entrance of the nest, feeding the youngsters without entering. Adults regurgitate partially digested insects to feed the young. Later, whole insects may be brought to the growing chicks. Young leave the nest after 25-30 days and usually remain with the parents for only a few days before becoming full independent.

The woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks are a family, Picidae, of near-passerine birds. Members of this family are found worldwide, except for Australia and New Zealand, Madagascar, and the extreme polar regions. Most species live in forests or woodland habitats, although a few species are known to live in desert areas. They are also absent from the world's oceanic islands, although many insular species are found on continental islands. There are about 200 species and about 30 genera in this family; 20 are native to North America. Many species are threatened or endangered due to loss of habitat or habitat fragmentation and pesticides. Two species of woodpeckers, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker, have been considered extinct for about 30 years (there has been some controversy recently whether these species still exist).

In woodpeckers, many species exhibit patches of red and yellow on their heads and bellies, and these bright areas are important in signalling. The dark areas of plumage are often iridescent. Although the sexes of Picidae species tend to look alike, many woodpecker species have more prominent red or yellow head markings in males than in females.

Overall the woodpeckers are arboreal birds of wooded habitats. They reach their greatest diversity in tropical rainforests, but occur in almost all suitable habitats including woodlands, savannas, scrub lands, bamboo forests. Even grasslands and deserts have been colonized by various species. These habitats are more easily occupied where a small number of tree exist, or in the case of desert species the tall cactus are available for nesting in. A number of species are adapted to spending a portion of their time feeding on the ground, and a very small minority of species have abandoned trees entirely and nest in holes in the ground.

Picidae species can either be sedentary or migratory. Many species are known to stay in the same area year around while others, such as the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, travel great distances from their breeding grounds to their wintering ground.

The woodpeckers range from highly antisocial solitary species which are aggressive to other members of their species to group living species such as the familial groups of Acorn Woodpeckers. Group living species tend to be communal group breeders. In addition to these species a number of species may join mixed-species feeding flocks with other insectivorous birds, although they tend to stay at the edges of these groups. Woodpeckers are diurnal, often roosting at night inside holes. In most species the roost will become the nest during the breeding season.

The diet of these birds consists mainly of insects, such as ants and beetles, nuts, seeds, berries, some fruit and sap. Species may feed generally on all of these, or may specialize on one or two.

All members of the family Picidae nest in cavities. Almost every species nests in tree cavities, although in deserts some species nest inside holes in cactus and a few species nest in holes dug into the earth. Woodpeckers and piculets will excavate their own nests, but wrynecks will not. The excavated nest is usually only lined from the wood chips produced as the hole was made. Many species of woodpeckers excavate one hole per breeding season, sometimes after multiple attempts. It takes around a month to finish the job. Abandoned holes are used by many other birds and mammals which are secondary cavity nesters…adding to the ecological importance of woodpeckers.

Most woodpeckers live all year in the same area and don't migrate. Woodpeckers can be found in a variety of habitats including farmlands, open woodlands, orchards, oak and pine woods, parks and gardens.

Woodpeckers are very beneficial to our environment. They eat thousands of wood boring insects and other garden pests. You can usually observe most woodpeckers spiraling around a tree trunk in search of food. Attracting woodpeckers to your own backyard is very enjoyable and these perky birds will reward you by eating insect pests in your garden such as crickets, ants, grasshoppers, flies, spiders, wasps, beetles, and grubs. A single flicker can eat thousands of carpenter ants in one day!

Why would anyone want to attract those noisy, wood drumming, flying wonders to their backyard? After all, don’t they sometimes peck holes in house siding and drum on gutters? Perhaps, but woodpeckers are among the most colorful and interesting birds to watch. Their toes are designed differently from most other birds, enabling the bird to walk upside down on trees and perch where other birds cannot. Most species of woodpeckers eat insects as a large part of their diet, and usually people are willing to share their backyard insects with the birds. Some woodpecker species are becoming rare and need help to avoid extinction.

Woodpeckers can be found just about anywhere there are trees. If you have large, old trees in your yard or live near a park or woodlot, you may have one or more species of woodpeckers in the neighborhood. To supplement existing vegetation and habitat; plant a few native fruit trees and fruiting bushes for the birds. If you have a small yard, look into the many available small trees; there are quite a few under 20’. Many woodpeckers enjoy eating berries as well as insects…like most birds. Planting nut-bearing trees, such as oak, pecan, and almond, will attract Lewis’s woodpecker and Acorn Woodpeckers, if those species are indigenous to your area. Lewis’s woodpecker is the only woodpecker in the United States with wings that are entirely solid in color; Acorn woodpeckers look like clown-faced birds.

Here are some great tips on how to get these wonderful birds to visit your backyard:

  • Woodpeckers eat insects, but will also eat acorns, nuts, fruit, sap, berries and pine seeds.

  • Purchase or make your own suet cakes. Offering suet in your backyard is the best enticement to attract woodpeckers. Smear suet in the bark of a tree, offer suet cakes in wire cages or use other specially designed suet feeders that you can buy or make yourself (pine cones are great).

  • Woodpeckers will come to your backyard feeder if you have plenty of perching space and offer their favorite food: black oil sunflower seed. The woodpeckers in my yard prefer the cylinder with holes large enough to pull the seeds through. It is about 10-12” long and perhaps 3” in diameter; plenty large for the birds to hang on. Finches like it too.

  • Some woodpeckers will be attracted to cracked corn or grapes, raisins (plumped in water) and apples on a platform feeder.

  • Create or preserve a snag in your backyard. A snag can be an old dead tree or tree stump. Snags are extremely important for providing food, nest sites and homes for woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers prefer dead or rotting trees for excavating their nest holes.

  • Mount woodpecker houses around your yard.

  • Plant an oak tree or shrub. Woodpeckers love acorns, as do many other birds.

  • Plant a pine tree or evergreen shrub. Woodpeckers, like other birds, will love the shelter they provide as well as eat the pine seeds and sap. This isn’t found to hurt the tree.

  • Lots of woodpeckers relish the sugar water found in hummingbird feeders. I take the top off plastic hummingbird feeders and use an electric drill to enlarge some of the ports a bit to accommodate their beaks…for them, grosbeaks and tanagers, as well.
  • Plant as many berry or fruit producing bushes or trees as you can. They come in a variety of sizes; choose dogwood, serviceberry, tupelo (aka: blackgum or sourgum), mountain ash, cherry, grapes, bayberry, holly, blueberries, apples, especially the tiniest of crabapples that all birds can swallow whole (less than ½ inch), mulberry, brambles like blackberries and raspberries, and elderberries. You’ll have a bird habitat in no time!

If you are interested in the damage and control methods of woodpeckers, be sure to leave a note and I’ll include a piece on that too. There are many helpful ways to deter woodies from using your home as a granary or a sounding board! Just remember; lethal control is generally ineffective (and illegal without special permits), as new birds (or about any such targeted animal) will just move into the space vacated by the dead ones. There are ways to embrace the value of this bird, keep it from driving you crazy and keep your home intact. Just ask.

Artwork from Wikipedia - I hope you enjoy all the paintings I found!


Debbie said...

Beverly, I love woodpeckers. Reading your post makes me wish that I had room to plant some trees or bushes that would encourage them, but I don't and won't until the economy picks up a bit. :-(

I have hairy woodpeckers show up at my feeders. I was wondering why I rarely see the male. Guess it's mainly the female that's out during the day. Used to have them jackhammer on the metal chimney at my former house. It always signaled the beginning of spring!

Off topic, but I thought I'd mention this. I've read that jays (I've got Stellars) can mimic the sound of hawks. I just heard one do it. I guess he does it to chase away the smaller birds at the feeder.

Tiger777 said...

That was a very interesting post especially as only the other day I saw my first woodpecker. I was visiting friends and while having lunch happened to look out of the window to see a strange bird sitting on the gate, friends identified it for me.
You don't see them often in the UK so it was quite a treat.

Debbie said...

One other thought that I had, especially since I live in the mountains of Colorado, is what a shame it is that there weren't more woodpeckers around. Maybe they could have stopped the spread of the pine beetles and saved some of our trees. So so sad to see so many dead trees.

Tiger, were you in the UK when you saw your first woodpecker?

Beverly said...

Hiya Debbie, I won’t be planting much this spring either…I’m wondering if I can get a bailout. BAILOUTS FOR BIRDERS! (Have you checked the price of feed lately? LOL

Yes, jays do that to scatter birds…even predators, I think. Everybody has territories…I suppose even hawks don’t want a challenge!

Well, we ‘should’ be getting an ‘influx’ of woodies with all the dead wood about. But instead we’re spraying pesticides that kill so many living things and knocking down snags for fire protection. Yeah, such a shame!

Hey Tiger, thanks for stopping by! Did you manage to figure out what kind of woodpecker you had visiting?

I'll be writing on a dozen different woodpecker species in the weeks to come...I'll try to keep it less wordy than this Introduction!

Debbie said...

Beverly, I just buy the seeds. I don't look at the prices. I use so little (though I wish I needed more). My space for feeding is so limited and my husband has a fit every time I put more out there. He claims he wants to be able to use the deck and not give it over to the birds completely. Right. As if we'd use the deck when it's cold and snowing outside. I tell him that I'll bring in some of the feeders in the summer. Funny he doesn't believe me.

Bosque Bill said...

It is amazing how many otherwise environmentally aware people have no clue as to the value of dead trees to the ecosystem.

My Downey and Hairy woodpeckers go nuts over peanuts.

Beverly said...

Ah well…going through round two of my diminishing retirement (nearly 2/3 in 2001 and already about 55K this year), I’m a bit concerned if I can afford to feed them to the extent I have been. This time of year it is easy for me to go through quite a bit of seed when hundreds of birds are at my feeders.

I think what you are doing for them, Debbie, is neat…I’ve heard it’s not all that good to have the feeders so close that the birds jostle each other get to them. But like you, while I do cut back some…I don’t quit feeding altogether when the weather improves. I take down larger ones so the seed won’t go bad in the weather sitting out too long; and I put up a bunch of hummingbird feeders, spear orange halves here and there and offer grape jelly, too. I had a bunch of orioles and grosbeaks that really liked that.

Having heard from the ‘authorities’ that feeding birds does not spoil them and can, in fact, sometimes keep them from starving during bad weather…I feed all year, now.

Bill…I’m embarrassed to say, Bill, I was one of those people who didn’t know about snags even just a year ago. I felt so badly just removing three trees; nasty apple trees though they were…I just got it done; immediately added several shrubs, a better tree for the birds and begged their forgiveness!

While it might not have been ‘aesthetically’ pleasing to leave a big ol apple-tree-snag smack-dab in the middle of my back yard, I could at least have left the one that was raking shingles off my garage roof…after removing said branches. It was not in such an imposing spot. Heck, today I’d have left the big on in the middle of the yard…and hung additional feeders from it! LOL

About peanuts…I’ve not seen any, anywhere. I buy seed at a local (very old) feed-store, but they really don’t specialize in birds at all. Big box stores seem to carry some (mixed) seed and sunflower seed, but I’ve not seen peanuts for pets or wild birds anywhere. I tried another feed-store an hour from here…no luck. The closest ‘wild-bird store’ is two hours away. When you find them, I’m assuming you don’t feed them the stuff that’s $4 for a small can, right; people-food (and way too salty)? Where do you find them, do you get shelled or not…and about what would I expect to pay for them? I’m guessing they’re peanut bits and not whole? Do tell… Please?

Hey...I've got at least 18" of snow; probably more! And it's still snowing. Maybe the Pink-butts will visit!

(Hopefully they'll wait till the big ol' Red-tailed hawk gets her dinner, though)

Debbie said...

Beverly, I buy bags of unsalted peanuts in the shell from Costco and put those out in the small feeder tray I have. The bags are 5 lbs each and I think I pay about $5 for them, +/- $1. I don't seen the pine grosbeaks that often so I don't know if they like them or not because the Stellar's jays get to them first. And what they don't get the crows seem to come and snatch. And if any fall on the ground, the fox gets them in the evening. (Check out the photo I posted of the fox on the CObirder website.)

Hope you get to see your pink butts today. I have only seen them once here. I think we have about 7" new snow today, but then lately we seem to get some every day. I just try to keep my deck cleared so I can get to the feeders.

Bosque Bill said...

No, I don't feed roasted, salted peanuts to the birds, I'm too busy eating those myself.

There used to be an excellent Wild Bird store near me that sold peanut pieces in gallon jugs (25¢ deposit on the reusable jug.) The owner's husband got a job out of state, so they closed to my chagrin.

I use one of those cylindrical feeders with holes about 1/4" in diameter, not the screen. I put it up during the winter outside my office window.

Oh, I just looked out at the feeder and there are big, fluffy snowflakes coming down.

Those peanut pieces are very hard to find, especially the size that will barely fit through the holes.

This last batch I found at the Corrales Village Mercantile, which is a feed store plus. It was a 5 pound, sealed-plastic bag for $8.99. The brand is Lyric Wild Bird Food. I see the bag is $7.49 from their web site, but of course shipping from Pennsylvania will increase the ultimate price.

Oops, it stopped snowing.

Beverly said...

WildBirds Unlimited must be pretty proud of their peanuts. A 3.5# sack is $8.99, but the bigger bag is cheaper! Sheeshhhh

Shelled Peanuts - 5 lbs
Item is available.
USD$ 18.99

OMG has 10# for only $26.50!

No wonder shipping is free!

But…check THIS out

Dang! That price is a LOT better!

Thanks you two, for getting me to check it out. Maybe I’ll order some one of these days.

Bosque Bill said...

Yeah, but "THIS" is F.O.B. somewhere in Canada :)

Beverly said...

Hmmmmmmmm...I don't know what F.O.B. stands for; but I'm sure it has something to do with "Always by US".

Thanks for pointing that out to me...I hadn't noticed since I really can't buy the stuff right now, anyway. I was just noticing the difference in prices. I saw some stuff on e-Bay, too...but it was marked 'not for human consumption' and that turned me off to the stuff real quick. Yanno?

Great point, thanks!

Bosque Bill said...

"Not for human consumption" I believe is fine. I think you will notice any bird feed, like peanuts, will carry that caution. That doesn't mean that it is unwholesome for the birds.

F.O.B. is an abbreviation that has been around a long, long, long time. It stands for "Free On Board" which means that is the price if you pick it up on the supplier's dock. In other words, does not include shipping. You generally see that for larger freight or bulk items.

And on that site you referred to the supplier is in Canada and we don't even know if those are US or Canadian dollars.

ehunter said...


I also like woodpeckers. Last time I was visiting friends and we went camping near Carbondale, I saw a Lewis' woodpecker. I used to live in Colorado but am now back East. While I am enjoying some of our east coast birds, I miss my Western ones. So I am thoroughly enjoying your blog.

Look forward to more on woodpeckers.

Beverly said...

Hello ehunter, thanks for visiting! I have to tell you, I truly enjoyed YOUR blog. I recommend anybody interested in birds, photography, banding, wood-carving and who knows what else, stopping by ...ehunter’s place! Lovely blog.

Hey, I lived for awhile on the East Coast (Connecticut), which was where I learned I prefer small towns. I imagine I’ll live out my years here…I really do love Colorado.

I’m going to have to get busy…I have twelve (12!) woodpeckers I’m going to do pieces on. I’ll try to keep them shorter than this one…where I talked so long, generally, about the woodies and how to attract them. These next pieces will be more specific, though not horribly technical…and all are birds seen, at least once, near where I live. No…I’ve not seen them all. LOL

Thanks for your kind note!

RuthieJ said...

Good post Beverly! I love woodpeckers, but I think they are sometimes quite misunderstood and hated for doing what woodpeckers do naturally (especially by folks in wood-sided houses).
I'm still hoping to attract the pileated woodpeckers from the nearby woods to suet feeders in my backyard.

Beverly said...

Wow, how awesome would that be? We don’t have any 16” woodies in Colorado…but I saw them when I lived in Connecticut; and considered it a rare privilege. I hope you get them at your feeders…AND manage a photograph, to boot! I’d love to see one, even in a friend’s photo!

Thanks for visiting again, Ruthie!

Mel said...

WOW! I've never read so much about Woodpeckers!
I haven't seen one yet, but I'm sure I will in the future :)

Vickie said...

Nice collection of art and woodpecker post. A real treat to have so many varieties in your area. I don't actually know how many we have in TN, which, of course, makes me curious.

Beverly said...

I’m sure you will too, Mel. While twelve species have been seen in the area where I live, you have to remember that some of them may just have been seen once! I’ll write about the whole dozen because, like you…I like to think positive. Nice to 'see' you again, thanks!

Vickie, thanks for visiting! I was so tickled when I found all those paintings; it was a blast to be able to share them! I’m fairly sure you have Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, but I also know…from reading YOUR blog, that you have perhaps the most stunning woodpecker of all: The Pileated Woodpecker! Time to get out those feeders, girl! LOL