Head Bangers

By | January 1, 2015
From Xplor: January/February 2015

With their bold black feathers, rowdy behavior, and head-banging habits, woodpeckers are the hard rockers of the bird world.

In a headbanging contest, you wouldn’t stand a chance against a woodpecker. To understand why, imagine being kicked in the head by a professional soccer player. That’s about the same amount of force a woodpecker feels when it slams its head into a tree — and woodpeckers bash their beaks into bark thousands of times a day. They do so to find food, hammer out holes in which to raise families, and drum messages to fellow woodpeckers. Keep reading to learn more about these hard-rocking birds.

When flying, woodpeckers flap a bit then glide a while. This gives their flight path a wavelike shape.

Missouri's Feathered Drummers

Seven kinds of woodpeckers tour the Show-Me State. The tree trunk to the right shows where each species often hangs out on a tree.

Downy Woodpecker

  • Here all year

Missouri’s smallest woodpecker isn’t much bigger than a sparrow. But being dainty isn’t a drawback. It’s an advantage. A downy’s light weight lets it cling to skinny branches, weed stalks, and wildflowers without breaking them. This way, the acrobatic little woodpecker can snap up insects that larger birds can’t get.

Pileated Woodpecker

  • Here all year

Pileated woodpeckers are Missouri’s largest woodpecker, and boy do they pack a punch. The crowsized birds hammer out huge rectangular holes in their search for carpenter ants and other insects. Sometimes the holes are so deep that they cause skinny trees to break in two. Oops.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

  • Here all year

Male red-bellied woodpeckers show off their drumming skills to pick up chicks. After a male excavates a nest hole, he taps around the opening to attract a mate. If a female’s interested, she joins in the drumming and helps finish the nest. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Visits during winter; flies north to nest Sapsuckers drill tidy rows of shallow holes in living trees. When sweet sap leaks out of the holes, the little woodpeckers return to lick it up. If insects drop by for a taste, they become sapsucker snacks. Although sapsuckers chase other animals away from their sappy soda fountain, hummingbirds, squirrels, and bats often slip in for a sip.

Hairy Woodpecker

  • Here all year

Hairy and downy woodpeckers look nearly identical. How do you tell them apart? Size is a good clue. Hairy woodpeckers are robinsized; downies are sparrow-sized. Another tip-off is the length of the bird’s beak. A hairy’s bill is about as long as its head; a downy’s bill is only half as long as its head.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

  • Migrates south during hard winters

Red-headed woodpeckers store acorns for winter in all kinds of nooks and crannies: cracks in trees, holes in fence posts, and rain gutters. The sneaky birds even wedge wood chips over their stashes to hide them from hungry squirrels. Redheads also stow insects for future snacking. Live grasshoppers get crammed into cracks so tightly they cannot escape.

Northern Flicker

  • Migrates south during hard winters

Flickers are weird — but wonderful — woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers are black and white. Flickers are mostly brown. Most woodpeckers spend their time in trees. Flickers fancy ants, so they spend lots of time on the ground. Most woodpeckers use their beaks like chisels to chip away wood. Flickers use their beaks like shovels to dig up ants and grubs.

Woodpeckers talk to each other by drumming. They pick something hollow — such as a dead branch, stove pipe, or rain gutter — and peck loudly and rapidly. The tapping tells other woodpeckers someone is looking for a mate or claiming a patch of trees.

Built for Hard Knocks

Here are a few of the tools woodpeckers use to survive the hard knocks of their hard-rock life.

Helmet Head A thick, spongy skull absorbs the shock of a woodpecker’s persistent pounding. The bird’s brain is packed tightly inside so it doesn’t slosh around.

Feather Filters

Heavy-duty hammerers — such as downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers — have feathers covering their nose holes to keep out sawdust.

Kickstand Tail

The edges of a woodpecker’s tail feathers curl inward. This makes the feathers strong and stiff. Woodpeckers prop their tails against tree trunks for balance as they climb

Tweezer Tongue

Woodpeckers use long, pointy tongues to pluck insects out of hidey-holes. The tongues are barbed and coated with sticky spit so squirmy bugs can’t wiggle off.

Drill Bill

If a woodpecker’s beak were pointy, it would get stuck a lot. Instead, its beak is wedgeshaped — like a chisel — which is perfect for chipping away wood

No-Slip Grip

Clinging to trees isn’t tough — if you have sharp claws to bite into bark and toes that point forward and backward for a no-slip grip.

Cavity Creatures

Woodpeckers raise their babies in holes they hammer into trees. When excavating a nest, woodpeckers search for soft wood that is already dead or rotting, so their cavity creation doesn’t hurt the tree. When the woodpecker family moves out, other critters move in. Squirrels, bats, screech owls, wood ducks, and bluebirds are just a few of the animals that make their homes in abandoned woodpecker holes.

Tree Huggers

Woodpeckers keep trees healthy by eating harmful insects. When there’s an outbreak of treemunching bugs, woodpeckers arrive in large numbers for a feast. Afterward, the forest sports a few more holes — and a lot fewer pests.

  • Woodpeckers can peck 15 to 20 times a second and rack up 8,000 to 12,000 taps a day.
  • Woodpecker eggs are pure white. Because they’re laid in a dark cavity, they don’t have to be camouflaged
  • Woodpeckers use the tone of their tapping to locate insects under the bark.

Welcoming Woodpeckers

With their bold colors and whacky way of finding food, woodpeckers are tons of fun to watch. Here are some tips to attract them to your yard.

Hang up some suet

Suet — animal fat mixed with seeds, nuts, and berries — is like candy to woodpeckers. Hang some in your yard, and woodpeckers are sure to come calling.

Fill a feeder

When woodpeckers aren’t gobbling grubs, they love to nibble peanuts, corn, and acorns. Fill a bird feeder with these munchies, and soon you’ll have hairy, downy, and red-bellied woodpeckers swooping in for a snack.

Leave dead trees

Ask your parents to leave dead or dying trees in your yard — unless the trees are a safety hazard. These “snags” make great places for woodpeckers to feed and nest.

To learn how to make suet, flock to xplormo.org/ node/16068.

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This Issue's Staff

Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White