Birds of the Glebe, Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker, resembling his ancestor the theropod dinosaur, excavating a cavity looking for ants. Photos: Jeanette Rive

Rat-a-tat tat!

By Jeanette Rive

Why is it that woodpeckers seem to find the noisiest metal roof, tree or telephone pole to hammer their bills against? Even if we are tempted to say, what a silly bird thinking it’s going to find food in a metal roof, woodpeckers don’t just bang on wood or other surfaces to find food, they are also advertising their presence to a potential mate or a rival and defending their territory. Even the smallest woodpecker can make a terrific racket.

In our neighbourhood gardens and surrounding green spaces, two small woodpeckers, the  Hairy and the smaller Downy, can often be seen creeping up and down trees or at suet feeders. If we’re lucky or go a bit further afield to the Arboretum, for example, we may well see the giant of woodpeckers, the Pileated woodpecker. As our winters get milder and shorter, yes, it is happening, two other woodpeckers have been sighted more frequently over- wintering here – the Red-bellied and the Red-headed.

Why don’t woodpeckers suffer brain damage from all that drumming, up to 25 times per second? First their brains are not very large and are tightly packed inside their skulls to minimize movement. Their bills are also designed to absorb much of the impact, with the lower bill slightly longer than the upper bill so the force is transferred down the body rather than back into the brain. In addition, the long tongues of woodpeckers are attached to a flexible bony structure that wraps around the back and top of the skull, providing a protective belt.

Even though the bill excavates the holes, it’s the tongue that gets the food. A woodpecker’s tongue when extended is almost a third of its length – imagine if humans had equivalent tongues of 18 inches! Their tongues have a barbed and sticky tip and are fully flexible to get into all the crevices to pry ants and other insects out of the tree. To cling onto the bark of trees or the telephone pole, they have two forward facing toes and two backward, unlike perching birds which have three forward facing and one pointing back! And unlike little creeping birds like nuthatches which go down the trunk forwards, woodpeckers go down backwards.

The Pileated woodpecker is about the size of a crow and weighs between half a pound and a pound with a wingspan of 29 inches. Its distinctive red cap and its size make it immediately recognizable. They are monogamous and stay together on their territory year round. They nest in old larger trees excavating a large cavity sometimes as deep as two feet to lay their eggs. Unlike most other birds, they don’t line their nests. They lay between 3 – 5 eggs which are incubated by both parents for two weeks or more and the chicks stay in the nest for up to a month and spend the next few months with their parents. A lucky observer can sometimes find a nest with several little woodpecker heads peeking out waiting for the parents. A new nest is built every year; the abandoned one often becomes occupied by other birds or even by mammals such as raccoons.

Fun fact: The story goes that Woody Woodpecker was inspired by an Acorn woodpecker in California which banged its way through the roof of a cabin where the producer Walter Lantz was spending his honeymoon in 1940.  Rather than shoot the bird, his wife suggested that he create a cartoon of the bird instead and Woody Woodpecker was born!

Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and photographer and a Glebe Report proofreader.

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