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Nature's percussionists - woodpeckers rock

Dec. 26, 2010 at 6:26 a.m.

A red-headed pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is seen pecking at a Sand Jack tree in South Tyler.

By Judie Farnsworth

A woodpecker is drumming. Is it looking for food, establishing a territory, calling its young, tapping out a love song? Yes to all. Why isn't it falling dizzily off trees? Why is it making Swiss cheese out of a downspout? Good questions.

There are more than 200 species of woodpeckers, all with similar habits. They're beneficial, eating large numbers of wood-boring beetles, grasshoppers, ants and insect pests found in tree bark and crevices.

Tapping on trees helps locate insects and healthy trees are not usually bothered. Woodpeckers also feed on nuts and wild fruits. They fly with a characteristic undulating three flaps and a glide.

Often called core species, woodpeckers are fundamental to the survival of many other birds. They excavate new nest holes each year, leaving the previous ones for other cavity nesting species.

Small owls, bluebirds and many small birds (wrens, chickadees) make use of abandoned holes.

Male and female work together chiseling out a nest hole, incubating eggs and raising young. Many store food and may have pantry holes as well. Sapsuckers drill parallel rows around a tree and return later to eat sap and the insects attracted to it.

Woodpeckers love sounds that resonate. Tin roofs, telephone poles, even gutters may be quite irresistible sounding boards. Sounds may carry far and wide - very helpful when establishing a territory.

Unlike songbirds, woodpeckers are musically challenged. They beat out their love songs. But, if you're a female woodpecker, rat-a-tat-tat on a trash can lid may be a symphony of love.

The woodpecker's strong bill serves as a hammer, chisel and crowbar. Its tongue is pointed, barbed and nearly twice as long as its head, winding around the inside back of the skull. There are many sensitive cells and a sticky substance at the tip. The sapsucker has a bushy end on its tongue for sopping up sap. Bristly feathers cover the nostrils so wood dust isn't inhaled. A moveable membrane protects the eyes.

Perching birds have three toes forward and one back. The woodpecker has four clawed toes; two pointing forward and two back. They easily grasp, balance and move vertically up and down a tree. Short, strong legs and extra stiff tail feathers help brace them. Toes, legs and tail all work together.

Whacking away at amazing speeds, woodpeckers chisel out a nest hole in about a week. Some strike 20 times a second. Slow motion would show each beat angling in from one side, then the other. Strong neck muscles add force. The skull is extra thick. Bones between the bill and skull are not tightly joined. Spongy tissues connect them, acting as shock absorbers. Just before impact, jaw muscles tighten, sending vibrations past the brain and helping protect against concussion. The whole body helps absorb the shock.

Threats to woodpeckers include loss of habitat and pesticides. In Victoria, we usually see red-bellied, ladder-backed, downy and piliated woodpeckers, flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

While you're enjoying The Texas Zoo, Riverside Park or any wooded areas - look and listen. You may be treated to the sound and sight of a highly specialized and fascinating woodpecker. Don't miss it.

Call the Zoo at 361-578-9745 for information about any upcoming events.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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