Wacky, Wonderful Woodpeckers

by Jon Ulrich

There are few things in nature as captivating as the precise, mechanical movements of woodpeckers. Watching them, I envision a system of bolts, springs and gears functioning in perfect unison. One minute they’re dancing around my feeders like spastic wind-up toys, and the next minute they’re gone – a blur of mottled plumage.
                 
Dr. Emma Greig has been studying birds, including our native woodpeckers, for more than a decade. As the Project Leader for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Feeder Watch program, she’s responsible for tracking data collected from feeder sites throughout North America.
         
I met with Grieg in early December at the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity in Ithaca to discuss our resident woodpecker species. She greeted me in the observatory and we took the stairs to the building’s second floor overlooking Sapsucker Woods Pond.
          
“We’re seeing a trend of some woodpeckers extending their range further north,” Greig says. “Their presence is increasing.” She shows me records on her laptop indicating the birds’ northward advance. Though Greig isn’t sure why their numbers in the area are growing (she speculates that climate change is a contributing factor), one thing is clear: there are a lot of woodpeckers in Upstate New York.

Birds of a feather
    
Woodpeckers have captivated humans for centuries. They play a prominent role in Native American creation myths. They make an appearance in Buddhist scriptures. And they populate our favorite cartoons.
    
Woodpeckers are unique from other birds for a few reasons.
• X-shaped “zygodactyl” toe patterns enable them to grip bark with ease as they probe for insects.
• Their firm tail feathers act as an “anchor” of sorts as they excavate tree cavities.
• Tufted feathers around the nostril prevent the inhalation of dust and debris.
• A skull comprised of thick, spongy bone cushions the brain.
• A “mismatched” beak structure allows for the transfer of energy away from the braincase.
• An elongated tongue (with a barbed tip) facilitates the extraction of insects from trees.
    
In addition to controlling insect populations, woodpeckers benefit the environment in other ways. Woodpeckers are known as primary cavity-nesters, meaning they excavate their own nesting holes. Once they’ve died, migrated, or established new territories, these deserted sites serve as nesting areas for secondary cavity-nesters. These are animals (such as the wood duck) that do not excavate their own holes, but rely on existing hollows for reproduction.
    
Another thing that distinguishes most woodpeckers from other birds is that they are non-migratory. The one exception in our region is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This, combined with their highly territorial nature, makes woodpeckers excellent candidates for year-round viewing. Once they’ve set up shop, they aren’t likely to move on. “They invest so much time in one area that they’re often a conspicuous presence,” Greig says.
    
My observations seem to confirm this. After exiting the Lab of Ornithology, I decide to take a walk along one of the paths winding through Sapsucker Woods. Near a junction in the trail I hear a dull thud like the sound of a hatchet on wood.  I look up to find a pileated woodpecker. At 16 inches in length, the largest of our native species is chipping away at an immense beech. Fibrous chunks of wood tumble to the ground. The bird’s topknot is a stroke of red paint splashed against a gray canvas.

Nothin’ to It But Suet
    
There’s a common misconception among outdoor enthusiasts that you need to travel to remote, out-of-the way places to congregate with nature. Nothing could be further from the truth.
    
According to Greig, woodpeckers are highly adaptable and well-suited for assimilating into what she calls “human-modified landscapes.” This includes residential areas.
    
According to a 2011 report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one in five Americans identify as active birders, with backyard viewing accounting for 88 percent of all recreational bird watching. This means that of the 47 million people in the United States who enjoy watching birds, more than 40 million do so from their porch or living room. We are a nation of backyard birdwatchers.
    
The most effective way to attract woodpeckers to your backyard is through the use of suet feeders. Suet is a combination of animal fat, seeds and nuts pressed into a flat cake. This can easily be placed in a wire basket feeder and hung in your backyard.
    
It’s little wonder why suet is so prized among woodpeckers. “It’s fatty and rich in nutritional content,” Greig says. Though woodpeckers will visit suet feeders year-round, this nutrition is especially valued during the winter months when food is scarce.
    
There’s one important way you can help facilitate backyard viewing, she adds. “Leaving snags will only increase the chances that woodpeckers will visit your feeders.” “Snags,” or standing pieces of deadwood, are integral to the health of an ecosystem. Many animals rely on them for basking, nesting and sustenance. One snag alone may house multiple colonies of insects, providing ample foraging opportunities for woodpeckers.
    
If you’re fortunate enough to attract woodpeckers to your backyard, more aggressive birds, such as blue jays, might startle them away. Squirrels, too, have a propensity for raiding suet feeders. While there are a number of products on the market to aid you in preventing rodents from robbing your feeders, Greig offers this simple rule of thumb: “Place you feeders far enough away from other structures like houses and trees so that squirrels can’t jump to them.”
    
Though I have seen every species of woodpecker indigenous to our region, I am most enthralled by our male red-bellied. More often heard than seen, he swoops down from the treetops to alight on our feeder, stabbing aggressively at our suet block before disappearing like a mirage.
    
With the incidence of woodpecker sightings on the rise, it looks like I’ll be seeing a lot more of his kind in the coming years.