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8 Common Woodpecker Characteristics

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of woodpeckers, focusing on their distinctive characteristics, behaviors, and ecological importance. From their specialized feet and strong bills to their unique drilling adaptations, these birds play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem balance. Let’s uncover the secrets behind their remarkable abilities. 

1. Woodpeckers are made for climbing

Most songbirds, perching birds, and birds of prey have three toes pointing forwards and one toe pointing back. Woodpeckers typically have two toes face forwards and two toes face back. This configuration is called Zygodactal.

This enables them to grasp tree trunks with ease, and walk up the trunks vertically and balance while they hammer. Their stiff tail feathers can provide extra support and stabilization, like the kickstand on a bicycle.

They have short, strong legs beneficial for foraging on tree trunks, as well as sharp strong claws on their toes for grasping bark. Right before their beaks make contact with wood, a thickened membrane closes over their eyes, protecting the eye from flying wood chips and splinters.

2. Woodpeckers have very strong bills

Woodpeckers have strong bills for drumming  on hard surfaces and boring holes into trees. They can use these long sharp beaks like a chisel for excavating cavities in trees for nesting.

Muscles at the base of the beak act as shock absorbers that absorb the pressure created from the force of impact. Many woodpeckers have nostrils lined with bristles to aid in filtering out dust and tiny wood chips while they are hammering away.

3. They also have long tongues

Woodpeckers have a long and sticky tongue that they can use to reach inside the holes they’ve drilled to grab insects. They are so long in fact, that they wrap around the woodpeckers skull through a special cavity. Many have a sharp barb on the end that can aid in “spearing” prey.

4. They are known for drumming  

Drumming is used as a form of communication with other woodpeckers. In the spring, males “drum” by repeatedly drilling their beak on hard surfaces such as trees, metal gutters, house siding, utility poles, trash cans, etc. They do this to announce their territory and attract mates.

Red-headed woodpecker drumming
Red-head woodpecker drumming | image by USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr

You can recognize the difference in sound – drumming is a short burst of steady, rapid paced drills. Reminds me of a jackhammer. Whereas when looking for food or digging cavities, the pecking sounds will be spaced further apart and be more irregular.

5. They have unique mating habits

Most species mate for one season only and work together to excavate a nest cavity, incubate their eggs and find food for the babies. Often the males will take over incubation for the nighttime hours while females will incubate during the day.

In general, eggs take about two weeks to hatch. The young are ready to leave the nest in about a month and then usually stay with the adults in family groups until the end of the summer.

Woodpeckers’ unique mating habits involve seasonal monogamy, where pairs collaborate to excavate nest cavities, share incubation duties, and provide food for their young.

Typically, males handle nighttime incubation while females take over during the day. The fledglings are ready to leave the nest after about a month and often remain with their parents in family groups throughout the summer, learning essential survival skills. 

6. Woodpeckers Are Masters at Finding Their Own Food

In some geographic areas, many different species of woodpeckers can coexist in the same habitat. This is possible if each species has their own niche and there is relatively little competition for food or nesting resources.

For example smaller woodpeckers like the Downy pick insects from the crevices in bark, while larger species like the Hairy drill into the tree itself to get insects that bore into the wood. Because they aren’t taking their food from the same place, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are often found living in the same areas.

Side by Side phots comparing Downy and Hairy woodpecker
Image credit: birdfeederhub

7. They’re an important part of the ecosystem

Woodpeckers have important roles to play as part of the ecosystem. They can help control insect populations and keep trees healthy. There are many types of wood-boring insects, and when populations get out of control they can decimate large strands of trees. Woodpeckers will not only eat the beetles, but the larvae as well. They can reduce the infestation of a single tree by up to 60%!

There are also many species of birds and mammals that use old woodpecker cavities. Birds like screech owls, wrens, bluebirds, nuthatches and kestrels need cavities to nest in, but cannot create them on their own. Mammals such as flying squirrels and mice will also use these cavities for shelter.

Wood pecker nest cavity

8. Woodpeckers are headbangers

You may have wondered how woodpeckers can jackhammer their bills into trees all day and not turn their brain to mush. As you may expect, woodpeckers possess special physical adaptations to protect their brains.

There is a lot of study on this topic and without going into too much detail of the many systems at work, here are a few of the components that go into making their drilling possible;

  • Small and smooth brain
  • Narrow subdural space
  • Little cerebrospinal fluid in the skull to prevent the brain moving back and forth
  • Plate-like bones in the skull that provide flexibility and minimize damage
  • The hyoid bone wraps around the skull and every time the bird pecks, it acts as a seat-belt for the skull
  • The top part of the bill is a little longer than the lower part. This “overbite”, and the materials that make up the beak, help to distribute the impact energy.
pileated woodpecker on tree
pileated woodpecker on tree

When a woodpecker strikes a tree, the impact energy is converted to “strain energy” in their body. The specialized anatomy of the woodpecker redirects this strain energy into their body instead of it all remaining in their head. 99.7% of the strain energy is directed into the body with only .3% remain in the head.

The small amount in the head is dissipated in the form of heat. So while this process protects the woodpeckers brain from damage it does cause their skulls to heat up quickly. The woodpeckers combat this by taking frequent breaks in-between pecking while the heat disperses.

Scientists are still studying woodpeckers shock absorption and energy conversion techniques today to learn more about how it works and possible engineering applications for things like helmets and even cars!

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