Wonderful, weird woodpeckers

By Larry Cornelis – President, Sydenham Field Naturalists

Well, maybe weird isn’t the right word, but they are definitely built different from other groups of birds.

We have seven woodpecker species in South Western Ontario.

In suggesting seven, I’m including the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which occasionally nests here but is regularly observed during spring and fall migrations.

I have seen a nesting pair in Pinery Provincial Park.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (which are aptly named) are our woodpecker species with the strongest drive to migrate, migrating south to the Virginias and Kentucky and further south into Central America.

We have two species which partially migrate from their northern limits to south of the Great Lakes down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

This includes the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker.

We have year-round residents of both of these species.

Submitted photo

Our four other species, including Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers are non-migratory year-round residents where they are found.

The breeding range of these four is large, reaching from north of the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.

The Red-bellied breeding range reaches to west of the Mississippi Valley but the other three reach the West Coast.

Getting back to how woodpeckers are built differently, what other bird or creature can spend most of the day pounding their heads/mouths against the trunks of trees and not suffer ailments?

Their brain case is enlarged and the frontal bones are thick and folded to form a shock absorbing cushion to protect the brain.

Their nostrils are long and narrow and some are feathered to keep out sawdust.

Another unique feature is their long extendible tongue which they use to pull grubs and other invertebrates from tree trunks and branches.

The tongue is barbed at the end, sticky and very long for the size of the bird.

The tongue can extend 5” beyond the bill to reach food.

The bill is very strong and chisel-shaped.

The Pileated Woodpecker, which is the largest woodpecker in North America and forages in the hardest woods, has the longest and straightest bill.

Woodpeckers feet are also different from other birds.

They have what is termed ‘zygodactyl’ feet indicating there are two toes forward and two back.

The outer rear toe can rotate to assist with climbing.

As a point of interest, there are two species, the Black-backed and Three-toed that have only three toes.

They live in the Boreal Forest of the north.

Another unique feature of woodpeckers is their tail.

The central tail feathers are curved and very stiff and are used to brace the bird while it clings to a tree trunk. Also strange is that woodpeckers don’t sing, they communicate with simple call notes and drumming.

The drumming kind of replaces singing.

They also make tapping sounds while foraging and excavating a nest hole but it’s not a form of communication.

Most species excavate a new hole/nesting cavity every year.

The Northern Flicker may use an old hole or even a bird house.

Woodpeckers range in size from 6 ¾ inches long and a wingspan of 12” for the Downy to 17” long and a wingspan of 30” for the Pileated (about crow sized).

I see four species at my bird feeders and in my gardens including Downy (the most common), Hairy, Red-bellied and Northern Flicker.

I think they are wonderful birds that characterize the amazing diversity and uniqueness of evolved life.

But then so do all living things.

Take a closer look the next time you see a woodpecker.

For more details on the Sydenham Field Naturalists, visit: sydenhamfieldnaturalists.ca

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