Woodpeckers designed for life with wood


The Louisiana Forestry Association and its people are about forests, trees and wood. A suite of birds is as well and have been at it much longer.

The woodpeckers.

They are equipped with nature’s design for life with wood. They have stiff tail feathers which function as a brace for perching on tree boles. Most birds have toes arranged three forward and one aft, but woodpeckers have two forward and two aft, suited for clinging to vertical surfaces, i.e., trees.

Stout bills are good for exposing subsurface prey in wood. Woodpeckers have an especially hard cranium, good for head banging on hard surfaces, called drumming. Drumming seems to be an important part of reproductive behavior. For woodpeckers, probably not us.

As part of an earlier research project, we installed plastic foam cylinders in young pine stands with little dead wood. Woodpeckers excavated cavities and roosted in them, but none reproduced. We concluded no noise from drumming on the soft structures precluded mating.

Another characteristic is their tongues with lateral barbs. Woodpecker tongues can be projected outward into crevices when they forage for arthropods in wood. I captured birds in mist nets as part of my doctorate at LSU. Captured woodpeckers were a special challenge to extract from nets. They would wrap their tongues up in the net strands. Sometimes I even had to cut the net from around their tongues to free them.

Woodpeckers play an important ecological role. They can be keystone species, representative of particular ecosystems. Their feeding can impact arthropod populations. And their excavated cavities can serve as roost and nest sites for secondary cavity nesters, such as some insects, some bat species and some birds, such as Wood Ducks, Eastern Blue Birds and Great Crested Flycatchers.

One common feature in identifying woodpeckers in flight is their pattern. They have an undulating pattern — flap-flap-flap-upward, then sail downward, then repeat. Also, most can be identified by their vocalizations.

Here is a brief overview of the common woodpeckers of Louisiana.

Downy: Often comes to suit feeders. Very small, ladder back horizontal b