As you sip tea by the woodstove and gaze out at your suet-nut feeder this winter, one family of bird is very likely to make its presence known. With their striking black and white patterning and red heads, crests and crowns, the woodpeckers of Mayne are easy to spot and fascinating to watch. Woodpeckers are chisel-billed, wood-excavating birds with very strong “zygodactyl” feet, meaning they have two toes facing forwards and two backwards, which, along with their stiff tails, provide stability when climbing laterally up a tree. Woodpeckers in flight follow an undulating or up-and-down pattern. They inhabit forests and woodlands where they feed on tree-boring insects, ants, flying insects, berries, acorns and sap.
When I say fascinating, I mean it. Especially their tongues …
Woodpecker tongues are usually about twice the length of their bills so that they can reach for insects inside the holes they peck out. When not in use, the long tongue curls around the back of the head between the skull and the skin. Having its tongue wrapped around the back of its brain gives a woodpecker somewhere to store a very long appendage, and also protects the bird’s brain from injury during high-speed pecking. Their tongues are sticky which helps them extract insects they find in their holes.
The tongue-length champion on Mayne is the Northern Flicker, with a tongue that can stick out two inches past the tip of this bird’s bill. Pileated Woodpecker tongues, on the other hand, are relatively short with barbed tips for extracting prey from bark crevices. And sapsuckers have very interesting apparatus too – they can sip sap by capillary action, wicking it up with their brushy tongues into their mouths. (Hummingbirds have a similar adaptation for drinking nectar out of flowers.) In addition to this impressive excavating and eating equipment, a woodpecker’s nostrils are covered in feathers to keep splinters and dust out while pecking.
Woodpeckers are the only birds to make a sound with something other than their body. They will drum on a variety of objects to communicate territory, attract mates, locate food, or possibly just for fun. This can be very annoying when their favourite musical instrument is your metal roof or wood siding! When climbing down a tree, woodpeckers stay upright and lead with the tail first, while other birds like nuthatches crawl down a tree head first. This difference probably allows birds to access the tree’s insects in different ways and reduces competition for food.
Our island species
We have five species on Mayne, all year-round residents who use the local woods as their feeding and breeding ground: the large and flashy Pileated woodpecker, the more nimble little Downy and its bigger cousin the Hairy, the wildly patterned Northern Flicker, and the cherry red-topped Red-breasted sapsucker.
The large Pileated Woodpecker, a clumsy visitor to your deck and feeder, measures about the size of a crow. It flies in a swooping manner, wingbeats irregular, showing the white flash of its wings’ undersides. Both sexes have a flaming red crest and the male also has a red streak on its lower cheek. They make loud “Kik, kik, kik” sounds and bore long oblong holes in dead or dying trees.
In contrast are the smaller Downy Woodpecker (measuring about 6” or 15 cm) and Hairy Woodpecker (9” or 23 cm) both with black and white patterning on their backs. Males have a red crown patch on the back of their head; the Downy has a shorter bill and makes a “pick, pick” sound, the Hairy has a longer bill and a stronger “peek, peek” call.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker measures around 8” or 20 cm and differs from the species above with an entirely red head and breast, some yellow on its lower belly, and beautiful black and white patterning on its back and tail.
Lastly, the gloriously-coloured Northern Flicker can be easily spotted in its undulating flight displaying its salmon undersides, black neckerchief and white rump. The overall colour of this bird is brown and salmon rather than the black and white of the other species. As they fly, they repeat a rapid and squeaky “flik-ah, flik-ah, flik-ah”, which gives this bird its name.
Woodpeckers are a “keystone species”
As well as being beautifully decorated excavating machines, woodpeckers are so important that many other species would suffer if they were to disappear from our ecosystem. Woodpeckers nest in tree cavities with access holes they carve out themselves, usually a perfect circle, although pileated woodpeckers make a nest hole that is oblong. They create new holes each year leaving their old holes vacant for other birds. Woodpeckers are the only birds who excavate dead and dying trees and supply nesting sites for other cavity dependent species. It has been estimated that 1900 species of birds (18% of all birds) and many other vertebrates use tree cavities for nesting and roosting, constituting a key component of forest biodiversity. Therefore, the health of forests can be measured by the abundance and diversity of woodpecker species found there. In Richard Powers’ novel “The Overstory”, Patricia Westerford (a character inspired by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard) writes “ … a dead log gives life to countless other species. Remove the snag and kill the woodpecker who keeps in check the weevils who would kill the other trees.”(p.117) Dead trees and the woodpeckers who use them are essential to healthy forest ecosystems.
Protecting woodpecker habitat on Mayne Island
Habitat degradation, and particularly the loss of standing dead wood critical for nesting, insect- catching, and food caching, is a serious threat to these avian neighbours of ours here on Mayne. Removing standing dead trees and snags for fire suppression or aesthetic reasons reduces the availability of suitable nest-cavity trees. Woodpeckers face other threats as well, such as competition for nest sites with European starlings, agricultural intensification, and exposure to pesticides. Wherever possible, please try to leave dead trees, logs and snags on your property for these industrious and fascinating birds.