Bay Journal

Variety of woodpeckers tap into Chesapeake watershed forests

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on January 01, 2000
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Northern flickers like to feed on ground insects, especially ants, which it eats more than any other North American bird. Although it prefers to nest in snags, the northern flicker will make its home in a variety of cavities, including posts, houses, haystacks and boxes.

I never liked Woody Woodpecker. His obnoxious laugh and demented antics were, to say the least, annoying. When some folks think of woodpeckers, this is what comes to mind and that’s unfortunate.

While I always thought woodpeckers were pretty interesting, it wasn’t until I did a little more probing into this group, which also includes flickers and sapsuckers, that I discovered that they are really fascinating birds.

Most woodpeckers feed on tree-living or wood-boring insects. Some flickers feed on ground insects, especially ants. The sapsuckers, as the name suggests, feed extensively on tree sap as well as insects. Still others feed on berries, fruits, nuts and certain seeds.

Their most distinguishing feature is their expertise in pecking wood to find food and to excavate nesting cavities. To this endeavor, their bills are shaped like pick axes and the tips are like chisels.

Like many birds, woodpeckers have four toes on each foot. But on woodpeckers, two toes are pointed forward and two are pointed backward. This adaptation helps them to cling to tree trunks and branches. Strong feet, short legs and a short stiff tail form a kind of triangular brace. This gives these birds the force needed to peck against wood.

A long, sensitive tongue (actually a bone and muscle with a short tongue on the end) helps to extract insects from holes. When retracted, these long tongues wrap around the inside of the base of the skull. The tips of their tongues are coated with sticky saliva and are barbed to help extract and hold prey. Sapsucker tongues are shorter, with fine hairlike tips for gathering sap.

There are more than 20 species of woodpeckers in North America. Woodpeckers commonly found in the Eastern United States include the red-headed, red-bellied, downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers, the northern flicker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, was once abundant in Southeast pine forests, from New Jersey to Florida and west to Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas. The loss of mature pine forests to timber harvesting and agriculture has restricted the red-cockaded woodpecker to about 1 percent of its historical range, from Virginia to Florida and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

Woodpeckers are 7–15 inches long and usually have contrasting coloration of black, brown and white, with barring or spotting. Males often have red or yellow on their heads.

In most species, flight is usually undulating, with wings folded against the body after each burst of flaps.

Woodpeckers have characteristic calls, but they also use a rhythmic pecking sequence, referred to as drumming, as a method of signaling or communicating. Drumming establishes woodpecker territories and attracts mates, and is generally done on resonant dead tree trunks or limbs.

Buildings, utility poles, metal gutters, downspouts, and chimney caps may also serve as drumming sites. While drumming causes little damage, other than possible paint removal on metal surfaces, it may often be heard throughout a house. Fortunately, drumming is predominantly a springtime activity.

Woodpeckers are intimately connected to their habitat. Most woodpeckers in our region depend upon forest land to provide them with the essentials needed to survive.

Unfortunately, the public’s appetite for land is taking a bite out of the region’s woodlands. In the last decade, the watershed has lost more than 471,000 acres of forests, an area half the size of Delaware.

Owners of large tracts of property can help by protecting the remaining forest land. Land conservation organizations can help landowners set up easements to protect forest land from development. Individuals can also help by planting native trees in backyards.

When managing land for woodpeckers, think of creating diversity. Keep a mixture of deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the winter) and coniferous trees (cone-bearing trees, like pines). Trees with rough bark often attract overwintering insects and these, in turn, provide food for woodpeckers all winter. Dead trees, known as snags, are also a rich source of insects throughout the year. If they pose no threat to structures, leave dead trees standing.

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, excavating nest sites in trees. It is important to have a variety of trees, as different species of woodpeckers prefer particular types of trees for nests. For instance, the yellow-bellied sapsucker prefers to nest in live birch and poplars while the northern flicker, red-headed woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker prefer to nest in snags.

And, by maintaining a diversity of native trees species, you’ll not only attract woodpeckers but also provide food and homes for many other types of wildlife.

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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