A Few Fascinating Facts About Woodpeckers

November 14, 9 am.

It is another beautiful fall day as I walk around the Willits Valley Mitigation Land along Davis Creek. The trees have mostly lost their leaves, their silhouettes outlined against the blue, blue sky. I can hear the drumming of a close-by woodpecker. Looking up I see it is our smallest woodpecker, the Downy woodpecker, in the willow tree finding the ends of branches to poke into with its small bill. There are other woodpeckers along these riparian corridors.  The stubby-billed Downy is the most common backyard woodpecker in North America, the one that loves to come to suet feeders and feed on black sunflower seeds. I have seen them eating the seeds of the tall mullein weed we have growing all over the valley. It is one of only about two dozen woodpecker species that are found in the United States. In Willits we have up to eight species of woodpeckers.

Most of these woodpeckers are a combination of white, black, red, and sometimes yellow. The black and white patterns help them be less visible to their predators. This is known as disruptive coloration and the sharp contrast in colors helps to break-up and conceal the shape and outline of a woodpecker against the surfaces they frequent. The red is usually found in flashy patches on their heads, differentiating the males from the females.

Upon researching woodpeckers in general I discovered many fun facts about them. A woodpecker’s tongue is up to 4 inches long depending on the species, and it wraps around the skull when it is retracted. Woodpeckers don’t get headaches from pecking. They have reinforced skulls structured to spread the impact force and   cushion their brains from repeated impacts and jostling. This pecking or “drumming” is used to attract mates, establish territories, and for other forms of communication. They use hollow trees, metal pipes, stumps, logs, utility poles, and other objects with more resonance.

Many woodpecker tongues are barbed to help the birds extract bugs from trees and holes. Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet, which means they have two toes facing the front and two toes facing the back, to help them strongly grip trees and poles in a vertical position. They use those toes with their stiff tail feathers to brace on trees as they climb.  Woodpeckers also have longer, thicker talons than other birds, which helps them with their exceptional grip. They eat bugs, sap, fruits, nuts, and seeds.

The Pileated woodpecker is our largest North American woodpecker. This bird is eighteen inches long and has a twenty-eight-inch-wide wingspan. When I see one in the Davis creek or Outlet creek area it is always a thrill, not only because they are very large, but because they have a very loud rattling call. When this woodpecker begins drumming on a tree it can be heard from far away.  It also makes enormous holes in dead trees with its large pointy bill searching for its favorite food, carpenter ants.

Most woodpeckers have a distinct undulating flight consisting of a few rapid wing beats followed by a quick glide when the wings are tucked against the body rather than spread like many other birds. This gives these birds an up-and-down, up-and-down flight pattern.

The trees around the creeks where I am walking usually harbor woodpeckers in them. Hairy, Nuttall’s, Red-bellied sapsucker and Northern flicker are the other species I see regularly. The lack of leaves in the trees allows me to get more glimpses of these mostly resident birds.