Phil Hardy: A bird’s eye view — woodpeckers

Published 12:49 pm Saturday, April 27, 2019

With the advent of spring, chances are good that, you, like me, are spending more time outdoors. Whether mowing grass, pulling those pesky weeds, or just enjoying the moderate temperatures, spring is a great time to be outside.
Perhaps you have heard the sound of machine gun-like tapping in your neighborhood and wondered what that sound could be. Early every morning I hear it up and down the street I live on and throughout our neighborhood. The sound, AKA drumming, originates from woodpeckers tapping out their own version of Morse Code.
So why do woodpeckers drum and does it serve any purpose? Let’s explore the world of woodpeckers.
Worldwide there are somewhere around 240 species of woodpeckers. Here in Georgia we enjoy eight different species with the ninth species, the Ivory-billed, now considered extinct.
Songbirds, like most animals, have a home range or a territory. This is particularly true during the nesting or breeding season. Often times the male will defend his territory in order to ward off other potential suitors thus avoiding extra pair copulations. By doing so he ensures his genes are passed on and not those of his rivals.
One of the best ways male songbirds defend their territory is through song. Through his song, the male is telling other males that this is his home — stay out and no trespassing. But woodpeckers don’t have the voice box to enable them to sing. They have a call but they can’t sing. So, in order to tell others where their homes are, they peck rapidly on a sounding board to announce their presence and ownership of that area.
They may choose to drum on a utility pole, a dead tree limb, metal roofing, or even the siding on your house. But the message is the same: this is my territory. If you are a good listener, and most of us aren’t, the next time you hear a woodpecker drum, listen for a competitor somewhere in the distance to answer with his own message.
Whether by singing or drumming, birds conserve lots of energy by not having to fly to all points of their home territory to defend it.
As you know, woodpeckers make their living on the sides of trees. As a matter of fact, there is an adjective that describes woodpeckers and other animals that climb: scansorial. And woodpeckers are perfectly adapted to a life of climbing because of two special adaptations they have. The first adaptation is the arrangement of their toes. In most birds the toe arrangement is three toes point forward with one toe pointing backwards. Not so in woodpeckers. Their toe arrangement is two toes point forward and two point backwards. This arrangement is called zygodactyl, and greatly assists them in climbing.
The other adaptation is that woodpeckers have really stiff rectrices or tail feathers. With these stiff feathers the woodpecker can use them almost as a third leg in order to prop on vertical tree trunks.
Woodpeckers’ diet can be varied based on what species we’re talking about. Their diet can consist of acorns, fruits, seeds, ants, grubs, insects, and tree sap. They have a specialized tongue that wraps around the back side of their skull that has little hair-like barbs on it to facilitate reaching food sources, such as grubs deep in a dead tree. The Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers are regular visitors to my feeders.
Being a cavity nester, woodpeckers need dead limbs or trees to excavate a nest hole. Old wooden fence posts are not unheard of either. They will also excavate roost holes within their territory in which to sleep.
In May 2014, I awoke to the sound of woodpeckers pecking on a split-rail fence just outside our bedroom window. As I looked through the window I saw a mated pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, our largest woodpecker, along with their two babies working along the old rails. Their goal was the many carpenter bee grubs inside the rails. After they fed, I examined the fencing. It looked like someone with an axe had been at work.
Woodpeckers have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the way they can walk up or down a vertical tree trunk or the many beautiful colors they come in. Nevertheless, woodpeckers are one of the first birds I can remember as a youth.
Enjoy the sights and sounds of our native birds this spring, and please keep your cats indoors where they belong.

Phil Hardy, an avid bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.