Hairy Woodpecker

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

The other day at breakfast I heard, “peek,” “peek,” “peek peek”, outside in the birch trees. With that encouragement I peeked as well, out the window. Much to my pleasure, there was a hairy woodpecker very carefully inspecting my neighborhood cat feeder. The feeder was intended for birds and it worked. It worked so well that all the $%A&#@ cats in the neighborhood showed up. After finding piles of junco and jay feathers I decided that birds would be much better off without my seed supplement and cats would have to put up with canned fare.

The sight of the hairy woodpecker got me thinking about the marvelous adaptations for their way of life. Hairy woodpeckers eat woodboring insects. They get this part of their diet by pounding holes through bark and wood with their beaks. Just how they locate their insect prey is not completely understood. They start out with light tapping which might cause grubs to move, which woodpeckers then hear. Hollow, insect-bored wood might sound different from solid wood, similar to carpenters tapping walls for studs. They may smell the insects. All senses may be used.The hairy woodpecker was a male, black and white with a red patch on the nape of his neck. He peeked, peeked, peeked around, until he noticed me peeking at him, when he flew across the street to the neighbors, the ones with a ferret, not cats. The ferret, we were told, fluffed up like a bottle-brush just before the rock and roll of the 1993 Klamath Falls earthquake, also felt in Ashland.

Once located, then it is bang, bang, bang. Next, the woodpecker’s incredibly long tongue comes into play. The tongue’s base is near the nostrils and curves up and around the forehead, above the eyes, around behind, then into the mouth. A complicated system of long, slender tongue bones and muscles causes the barb-tipped, sticky tongue to extend out into the hole and impale the unfortunate grub.

You would think, with all that pounding, woodpeckers would suffer from detached retinas, ringing ears, and headaches. But no, their beak attachment and skull protect the eyes, ears and brain from impact.

In wintertime they eat acorns and hazelnuts, and there is some evidence they may cache insects. From 75 to 90 percent of their diet is insects, augmented with sap from sapsucker holes.

Adults pair up in winter. The pair pounds away in unison – duet drumming it is called. The female taps at sites and courts the male with what must be a very quivering, fluttering flight. The male selects the nest often in live trees. Both work to excavate a nest lavishly lined with wood chips, a task that averages 20 days. Both incubate the eggs, female during daytime, male at night. Parents continue to look after young for several weeks beyond fledging.

Like many of our birds, hairy woodpecker numbers are declining, perhaps because nest sites are often usurped by English sparrows and starlings, two non-native European imports.

Let’s hope “peek, peek, peek” doesn’t became a thing of the past.


— Dr. Frank Lang

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