Woodpeckers are nature’s percussionists


We have a woodpecker that has taken up residence in one of our trees by the garage. I never see him. I only hear his pecking. Believe it or not, this pecking on trees is not always a bad thing.

Mating season is in full swing, and will last through July. The drumming you hear now is made by male woodpeckers.

Males use the drumming like another bird would use a song to claim territory and to attract a mate. Every two seconds the male hits the tree forty times. It’s rarely destructive, and will stop after mating season. When woodpeckers pair up, they use pecking as a form of code to signal coming and going from the nest. Both parents take care of the young. The male will incubate the eggs at night to allow the female to forage.

Woodpeckers knock out holes in trees to create a nest. When they do this on your barn or the wood siding of your house, this can be a problem. Depending on the species, woodpeckers use both dead and live trees for nests. The majority will use dead trees, or snags, for their nest site, and may return to the same place every year. I tried to find information on whether damage to live trees due to woodpecker cavities is a major concern. It doesn’t appear to be. Their “pest” status is due to their drilling of cavities into barns, homes, fence posts, telephone poles, and other man-made structures. In Texas, the biggest culprits are the Pileated and Red-bellied woodpeckers and the Northern Flicker. The main reason these birds turn to man-made structures for nest sites is habitat loss. One way to help is to build nesting boxes. Plenty of plans are available on the internet. Also, where it makes sense, leave snags for the woodpeckers to use. Snags will also serve as home to several hundred other species over the course of a year.

The Pileated woodpecker (similar to what the cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker is made to look like) is the most common of the bird species seen in the Milam County area. The Pileated woodpecker (similar to what the cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker is made to look like) is the most common of the bird species seen in the Milam County area. The third reason woodpeckers hammer into wood, or strip the bark, is to find insects. Most of the insects they eat we consider pests, like carpenter ants, woodboring grubs, and termites. By getting rid of infestations, they help keep insect populations from spreading to nearby healthy trees. So, pay attention. If a woodpecker is tearing up a structure looking for food, it could be it’s infested with insects. Woodpeckers have strong neck muscles and a straight, hard, chisel-pointed beak. The bones between the beak and thick skull are flexible. A spongy, elastic tissue between them acts as a shock absorber. Bristly feathers around the nostrils filter out wood dust. The birds grip the tree with four toes tipped by sharp claws. Two point forward and two point back. Their stiff tail feathers act as a brace to steady themselves as they peck.

Woodpecker tongues are highly specialized, and differ between species. They can extend them past their bill (hummingbirds are the only other bird species that can do this) to search inside the wood for insects. Backward projecting spines capture and remove the insects. Sixteen species, of the more than two hundred that live world-wide, can be found in Texas. This includes the endangered Redcockaded woodpecker in East Texas.

In our area you might see the Pileated woodpecker. If you know who Woody Woodpecker is, then you know what a Pileated woodpecker looks like. The Downy woodpecker is small and white with a black tail and wings. Males have a red cap on their heads. They are a common sight at backyard feeders. The Redbellied woodpecker is black-and-white striped and red on the head. Their wings are tipped in white.

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2011-05-05 digital edition

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