About Woodpeckers

4th July 2010

When we think "woodpecker" we think of a bird banging its bill against a tree or a telephone pole. How can it play jackhammer like that without getting a headache? How can it make holes in solid wood? It has to have a very strong bill. It also has to have a very thick skull. And between the bill and the skull is a pad of spongy connective tissue that acts as a cushion.


A woodpecker doesn't use a ladder or scaffolding to perch on while he pecks away. He has to anchor himself to the side of the tree or pole. His sharp claws dig into the wood or bark. Most woodpeckers have two toes turned forward and two turned backward. They give a firm grip.


The woodpecker's tail is made of very stiff feathers. He uses it for a brace.


Unlike most other birds, woodpeckers like to eat ants. They also eat other insects and grubs that burrow into trees. If the woodpecker had to dig a hole to every single insect, he'd have to cut the tree apart to get them all. But woodpeckers have another very special piece of equipment to help them. That is a long, elastic tongue.


The tongue has barbs or glue on the end, and it can get around curves and get the ants that are scurrying around in their tunnels. The tongue is rooted in the right nostril and splits in two, passing over the head under the skin and on both sides of the neck. Then the two parts join together again and it comes up under the lower jaw. It is very elastic and the root part is strengthened by five tiny bones called the hyoid bones.


The very first woodpecker had to have all the equipment: a beak that can make holes in wood hard enough to bend a nail; strong neck muscles; a thick skull with a cushion between the beak and skull; a long elastic tongue with a glue factory in it; toes that can grip the side of a tree; and a tail stiff enough to use for a brace. The idea of a bird getting all those tools gradually just doesn't make sense!


Strangely enough, there is one kind of woodpecker that never pecks on wood! In fact, it never sees it! The Gila woodpecker lives in the desert of the southwestern United States. The nearest thing to a tree is the giant saguaro cactus, which may grow to be fifty feet tall. The bird pecks through the rather tough outer layer and into the softer pulp and hollows out a hole for a nest. The cactus seals over the cut portion, to keep from "bleeding" to death from loss of sap, and the bird has a nice insulated home. Next year the woodpecker moves on and pecks out a home in another cactus. But the hole that is left isn't wasted, because an elf owl moves in.


Many creatures in the desert have a hard time finding enough water. But insect-eating birds do not have this problem. The body of the insect is largely water (it is said that spiders are eighty percent water) so the woodpecker has little trouble getting enough.

The flicker woodpecker is well equipped for digging holes in trees. The beak is straight, hard and pointed, and the bird may peck 100 times a minute. Nests are hollowed out as high as 90 feet above the ground. Perhaps that is why the flicker is sometimes nicknamed "high hole." Other nicknames include "wake-up," "harrywicket," and "yellow hammer."

There are several varieties of flicker. They have more brown on them than most woodpeckers. They also have a white patch on the back above the tail.


Flickers spend more time on the ground than other woodpeckers. They run about like robins, looking for ants and especially for ant nests. When a flicker finds ants coming out of a hole he makes the hole bigger and sticks his tongue in it. The ants may think a worm is invading their territory, and rush to attack it. But they are caught on the woodpecker's sticky tongue and the bird has a good meal. A single woodpecker may eat as many as 3000 ants a day.


A woodpecker was seen sitting on a stump, with its tongue down a hole it had drilled. After the bird flew away the stump was split with an ax. It was honeycombed with ant tunnels, but the ants were gone.


Most woodpeckers follow a spiral path around a tree, from bottom to top, looking for insects. Then they fly down and start again at the bottom of the next tree. But the green woodpecker, which lives in Europe, backs down the tree. This bird digs in dead trees and moth-eaten posts, which is dusty business. It has tufts of small feathers covering the nostrils to keep out the dust.