By Bill Willis and Jeff Church
August 22, 2018
“Knock on Wood.” How many times have you heard that sound or saying? Humans knock on something wooden to assure continued good luck. Perhaps it has extra meaning if you happen to be an avian head-banger and want to insure continuous good luck for “more is always better”.
North Carolina hosts eight species of native woodpeckers from the abundant Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Pileated, Redheaded to the rarer Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
The diet consists of ants, beetles, tree sap, and plant material. The woodpeckers and hummingbirds will visit the sapsucker holes to catch the insects that come to the sap. Both a suet and seed feeder will provide nourishment for woodpeckers.
There are several reasons for this activity. A male announces his presence to a possible mate, other birds are drilling for larva and insects, extracting sap, or actual nest building. Downy woodpeckers, being the smallest North American woodpecker, about the size of the Eastern Nuthatch, are able to use birdhouses intended for nuthatches and blue birds with minimal effort.
The rate of pecks can reach 100 per min at 15 mph; a full day’s work could reach 12,000 pecks. That is a remarkable number considering the bird’s potential 10-year life span. The force of the woodpecker’s head hitting a tree was estimated at 1000 - 1500 g-force units. Humans can receive concussions at 90 – 100g in a highspeed vehicle crash. Other comparisons are high speed rollercoaster 3.5-6.3g; Apollo 16 reentry 7.19g or direct boxer blow 52g.
The stresses on the neck, face, and skeleton might demand stopping every four hours to take headache medication. However, powerful neck muscles, a flexible spine and a tongue that wraps around the skull afford head protection. Other structural features include uneven lengths of upper and lower beaks that lessen force transmission to the head but rather direct it to the rest of the body. A supportive, thick and spongy bone loops around the brain and acts as a safety belt in reducing shocks/concussions.
Unlike songbirds that have three toe claws forward and 1 rear, the woodpecker has 2 forward toe claws and 2 rear ones, providing better traction on the side of trees. Their stiff tail also has a spike that helps the woodpecker anchor and balance on the side of the trees. Feathers protect the nostril area to keep sawdust out and a special third eye membrane protects the eyes. They’re pretty well prepared for the work at hand.
Loss of habitat and the use of pesticides have negative impacts on woodpecker populations. Woodpeckers can become backyard visitors if food, water, shelter, and nesting sites are provided. They will also be drawn to feeders.
The woodpecker is the driller, pecker, and drummer in the forest. He will hammer for various reasons such as attracting a mate, extracting insects, or building a nest. If he can be attracted or redirected to another location by meeting his needs better elsewhere, that would be a good approach. There are other methods involving motion, reflection, scare tactics, or decoys that might prove helpful.
Trapping or killing woodpeckers is illegal!
Sit back and enjoy the “Sound of Music” with a touch of percussion.