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 of their diet consists of insects, many of which are potential timber pests. Woodpeckers find insects on the trunks and limbs of trees by sight, or by probing in crevices, scaling off bits of bark or hammering deep into the wood.
Nuts and fruits also comprise an important part of their diet. Most woodpeckers excavate nest cavities and forage for wood-boring insects in trees that are already dead, dying or diseased. Some species, like the northern flicker, may feed on the ground. Others, like the red-headed woodpecker, will catch insects in flight to feed their growing chicks.
All seven of our woodpeckers nest and roost in holes or cavities in trees that they usually excavate themselves. These cavities, pecked in dead or rotting wood, don't hurt the trees and provide important nesting sites for many other cavity users, including chickadees, tufted titmice, bluebirds, tree swallows, screech owls and flying squirrels.
Sometimes woodpeckers use existing cavities or nest boxes, but they generally prefer natural nest sites. Because the nest cavity provides a place to raise their young, woodpeckers don't need to carry in nest material like twigs or leaves. Instead, they line the bottom of the nest cavity with a few wood chips for the eggs to rest on.
All of our woodpeckers lay pure white eggs. They don't need any camouflaging patterns or colors--the nest cavity hides the eggs. When it's time to incubate eggs the female takes most of the day shift, and the male takes the night shift. Both parents share the responsibility of bringing food to young in the nest.
Woodpeckers communicate by means of displays, drumming and vocal calls. Male woodpeckers of most species proclaim their territories by drumming a loud rapid sequence on a dead branch or hollow tree. In some cases, they will drum on wood-sided houses, rain gutters or other metal surfaces. They can be discouraged with balloon scare-eyes or shiny, colorful streamers placed slightly above where the woodpecker is doing damage. A species that naturally has a loud voice will advertise its territory by calling, or by both calling and drumming. When females and males are pairing up during the mating season, they may drum back and forth to each other, duet style. Tapping on suitable nest sites is a ritual part of courtship for some species.
As a general rule, woodpeckers have many aggressive displays they use to defend their territories or feeding sites. Displays used by woodpeckers involve some kind of motion of the head, whether it be bowing, bobbing, turning side to side or back and forth or pointing their bill up. It isn't uncommon to see their head feathers ruffled or their tail feathers and wings partially spread, making them appear larger. Many species of woodpeckers showing off for prospective mates flutter or float in flight.
There's a fine line between love and hate, as they use minor variations of their aggressive displays to court would-be mates. Initial encounters between males and females during the breeding season may appear hostile, but eventually the sexes become more tolerant of each other.
Nothing breaks the stillness of an Ozark forest like the raucous laughlike call of the pileated woodpecker. And who can resist the adorable little downy woodpecker that makes regular appearances at backyard bird feeders? Encountering a mixed flock of woodpeckers and other birds busily foraging on leafless trees never fails to break up the monotony of a walk in the winter woods. Whether you see woodpeckers in small flocks, singly or in pairs, you'll be delighted by the wide variety of woodpeckers in Missouri throughout the seasons.
Extirpation means no longer living in a certain location or place. Extinction is forever. Extinct animals or plants no longer live anywhere. Until recently, the ivory-billed woodpecker was believed to be extinct. Although this sleek and secretive giant no longer graces the forested swamps of the southeastern U.S., a few individuals may have managed to hang on in the mountains of eastern Cuba.
In the U.S., extensive logging of bottomland and virgin cypress forests during the late 1800s and early 1900s led to the demise of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which once lived in southeastern Missouri. The species decline was especially swift because a single breeding pair needs about three square miles of undisturbed forest for its territory.
Wood-boring beetles and grubs that infested dead and dying trees were the ivory-bill's principal foods. The loud, excited "yamp, yamp, yamp" calls it made were similar to the sound produced by a clarinet mouthpiece. It is unlikely that sound will ever be heard again in the U.S.
Our national will to save the ivory-billed woodpecker wasn't strong enough in 1948, when the last mature forest that supported these birds along the Tensas River in Louisiana was cleared for agriculture.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are somewhat different from other North American woodpeckers because they live in family groups called clans. The clans are composed of a mated pair, their offspring of the year and, occasionally, unmated male helpers. This amounts to a cooperative breeding arrangement where the clan excavates cavities in a cluster of trees for nest and roost sites and vigorously defends a 40- to 80-acre territory.
It takes two years or more to excavate a cavity because the building sites are always living pine trees, which have much harder wood than dead and decaying trees.
Above and below each cavity the birds also excavate tiny holes--resin wells--from which pine resin flows. The oozing, sticky resin helps keep climbing black rat snakes from reaching their cavities and preying on eggs and young. The advantage of all this hard work is that cavities excavated in living trees can last decades.
This southeastern U.S. woodpecker depends on open canopied, mature pine forests that are periodically thinned by fire. Populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers have been vulnerable to elimination, fragmentation or modification of those forests by people.
The species was extirpated from Missouri because wild fires were suppressed, and virgin short-leaf pine forests of the southern Ozarks were logged in the early 1900s.
The last reported red-cockaded woodpecker colony disappeared shortly after the last stand of virgin short-leaf pine was cut in the spring of 1946 along Highway 19, just south of Round Spring in Shannon County. The closest population to Missouri today lives in the western Ouachita Region of Arkansas.
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