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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 black-and-white strips on back. Very similar to the Hairy, which is found here also. The Downy’s bill is smaller. Males of both species have a red patch on their head.

Red-cockaded: Small, ladder back. Inhabits older, open-grown, pine stands. The only woodpecker that nests and forages in living pines. Family groups, called clans, nest and forage cooperatively. On the Endangered Species list, but recovering. They peck around cavity entrances to stimulate resin flow which deters predators. Takes several years to excavate a cavity, but will use artificial cavities, called inserts.

Red-bellied: Medium size. Widespread. The red on the belly is only conspicuous on a specimen belly up in a museum case. They also have the ladder back black-and-white design. The red on their head is more extensive and covers the crown on the males.

Red-headed: Medium size. Adults of both sexes have completely red heads. Juveniles have dark heads. Nests in open habitat, such as dead trees in beaver ponds. Sometimes nests in telephone poles, which isn’t good for the poles or woodpeckers. Their call is similar to the Red-bellied.

Pileated: Large black and white, crow size. Males have more red on the head than females. Excavate large almost rectangular entrance nest cavities in large trees. Often mistaken for the Ivory-billed woodpecker, which is probably extinct.

Ivory-billed: Probably extinct. Large, conspicuous white on back. Whitish bill. Call quite different from Pileated. Last documented viable population in bottomland hardwoods of Louisiana.

Northern Flicker: Medium size. Yellow underwings. White tail patch. Black whisker mark on face of males. Common in winter in Louisiana. Most flickers nest farther north. Forages on the ground more than other woodpeckers. Eats ants, fire ants I don’t know. Colloquially called the yellow hammer, the state bird of Alabama.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Medium sized. Identified by white vertical stripe on wing, and cat-like call. Both sexes have red on the head, male also red on chin. Sapsuckers are the ones that make the rows of horizontal small holes on the boles of trees, mostly hardwoods. Sapsuckers winter here, but breed and nest further north.

So here’s to the woodpeckers. Maybe they were the inspiration for the bumper sticker — Wood is Wonderful. Get your binoculars, a bird guide such as David Sibley’s Guide to Birds, and see which of these wood mongers you can identify.

(Dr. James G. Dickson-Award winning -author, researcher, wildlife biologist, and professor. LFA Director Emeritus. Email him at

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