Missouri Woodpeckers

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

Almost every place on earth where there are trees--except Australia--there are woodpeckers. Remarkably, there are about 215 species of woodpeckers worldwide. Depending on the time of year, Missouri is home to seven species of woodpeckers. The hairy, downy, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers reside here throughout the year. Northern flickers may migrate southward in the winter, and red-headed woodpeckers will if there aren't enough acorns to eat. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don't breed in Missouri, but they stay here during the winter months.

The bright colors and patterns of woodpeckers' feathers are distinctive. Contrasting brown, black and white colors mixed with barring and spotting patterns are typical. Because it takes some experience to recognize their individual calls, learning to identify plumage colors and patterns relative to body size is the best way to tell one species from another.

Woodpeckers on the wing, such as the pileated, red-headed and northern flicker, reveal patches on the wings, tail or rump that can help you identify them. Males often show more red on the head than females, but for some species, like the red-headed woodpecker, it is impossible to distinguish between the sexes.

Woodpeckers are uniquely adapted for a life of climbing and pecking--or drumming, as it is called--on trees. Their specialized zygodactyl feet, with two toes pointing forward and two back, help them get a firm grip on vertical surfaces. They use stiff tail feathers to brace themselves as they scoot up and down trees.

When woodpeckers drum, they're doing more than just making noise. They are using the sound to help locate grubs and insects inside the wood--just as you might tap a hammer along a wall to find the hidden stud. Woodpeckers can hear when an insect is hiding beneath bark or in a hollow part of the tree. Then they use their heavy, chisel-shaped bill to peck beneath the tree bark, but it takes more than a sharp bill to do the job. Powerful neck muscles drive the blows, and their thick but spongy skull is designed to spread and absorb the shock of repeated pounding and to protect the brain.

Woodpeckers have long tongues supported by bones that wrap over the top of the skull and attach in their nostrils. The bristle tip at the end of their tongue helps them fish out insects hiding in the deep cracks of trees.

Trees and forests stay healthier because of woodpeckers' eating habits. Most

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