Submitted by Pam Varga, Sahli Park Manager

Hear that loud Brr-rat-a-tat-tat from high up in the trees? It is a woodpecker hammering away in search of delicious insects to eat, excavating a nesting cavity, attracting a mate, or claiming its territory. Pounding its beak against a tree trunk at over 20 times per second is enough to scramble any bird’s brains, but the woodpecker is well adapted to it. Woodpeckers have extra strong neck muscles that provide the drilling force and sharp stout bills with chisel tips for chipping wood. The cells at the tip of the beak are constantly regrowing to prevent the beak from wearing down. A thick skull acts like a protective helmet. The beak and skull are joined by spongey shock absorbing tissue. Small bristly feathers at the base of the beak protect the bird’s nostrils from dust and flying wood chips, and a special translucent membrane called a nictitating membrane slides sideways across each eye to also give protection from dust and wood chips.

A woodpecker has a very sensitive, long, flexible tongue with a barbed tip for stabbing insects and extracting them from the holes the bird drills into a tree. This tongue may be two or three times the length of the bird’s head. It is so long that when it is retracted, the tongue actually wraps around inside the back of the bird’s skull. 

Woodpeckers are excellent tree climbers. They have short muscular legs, sharp claws, and zygodactyl feet—now there is a word you probably never heard before! Two toes point forward and two point backward, helping the bird to climb and grasp. Most songbirds have three toes pointing forward and only one pointing backward. Stiff tail feathers help woodpeckers balance when they are climbing and clinging to a tree. 

 Sensitive hearing can help woodpeckers locate insects chewing or burrowing under tree bark and inside trees. The birds eat a variety of wood-boring grubs and beetles, insect eggs, and larva. Woodpeckers also eat ants, corn earworms, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, apple borers, grains, acorns, tree sap, nuts, and berries. They are an excellent form of natural pest control. If you put sunflower seeds or suet cakes in your bird feeders, you will most likely attract hungry woodpeckers.

All woodpeckers are cavity nesters. Together, the male and female excavate a hole in a tree trunk or large branch and line it with soft wood chips. Both the male and the female incubate the eggs and feed the young. Abandoned woodpecker nests are often used by owls, bluebirds, tree swallows, nuthatches, chickadees, and gray or red squirrels. 

At Sahli Nature Park, we have observed four of the nine woodpecker species found in Pennsylvania—Piliated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. The Piliated is the largest woodpecker in Pennsylvania. It is from 12”-17” in length with a wingspan of 27”, about the size of a crow. This shy bird has a black back and wings, a black and white head, a long slender neck, and a distinctive, tall bright red crest on the top of its head. The male also has red cheek patches, but the female does not. You can see the white undersides of the wings when the bird is in flight. A Piliated nest cavity can be identified by its rectangular shape. This woodpecker’s favorite food is carpenter ants.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has a distinctive black and white zebra striped pattern on its back. Low on its buff-colored belly is a pale red spot that may be hard to see. The male has a bright red crown that extends down its neck. The female’s cap is gray. In addition to insects, the Red-bellied Woodpeckers also eat acorns, nuts, and poison ivy berries. They often hammer acorns and berries into cracks in tree bark and wood to provide them with a winter food supply.

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers look so much alike that they are hard to tell apart. Both have black backs with white down the center, white bellies, black and white checkered wings, and black and white striped heads. The Hairy Woodpecker is a bit larger (about the size of a Robin) with a longer, thicker beak which is equal to or longer than its head. The Downy is smaller (about the size of a Sparrow) with a shorter, thinner beak. The patch of feathers at the base of the Downy’s beak are thicker and fluffier. The males of both species have red caps on the back of their heads. On the Hairy male, the red cap is divided by a black stripe. The females in both species lack the red cap. On female Downies, the white eye stripes meet behind the head. On female Hairies, the white eye stripes do not meet. Downy males and females have black stripes on their outer tail feathers. The Downy is more common in our area.

Woodpeckers do not migrate and can be found all year round in Pennsylvania. Put out some sunflower seeds and suet cakes and enjoy the drumming sounds of a woodpecker, even if it is on your roof or garbage can lid.

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