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THROUGH THE WOODS: Our largest woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THIS IS THE TIME of year birds are establishing territories, finding mates, nesting, and feeding young. Our largest area woodpecker is the black and white pileated, the one that is crow-sized and has a beautiful red crest, like the cartoon “Woody” Woodpecker. They make large oblong holes, not round ones like the other woodpeckers. They are so good at chiseling wood that they may completely gut a large tree to get the insect larva inside. People get upset if these birds attack a yard tree, but it shows that the tree is unhealthy, probably dying, and full of insects. They also do this to buildings and anything else that is wooden and infested with their favorite foods.

To thwart this problem and withstand the high winds on my Austerlitz hill, I built my house with a siding that is made of concrete and fiber. Our woodworking woodpeckers have special beaks and bodies. The pileated can whack a tree at 20 times per second totaling about 12,000 whacks per day and extracts insects and larva with a tongue that extends 4” beyond the tip of the beak.

The tongue is an anatomy nightmare that loops from the jawbone, is inside the right nostril, to the top of the skull, and goes around to the beak. It is best to look at it in a diagram to even begin to comprehend this. The tip of the tongue is barbed and has a sticky substance to hold the insects. The whole woodpecker body absorbs and dissipates the shock of each blow. Scientists have been studying this to see why woodpeckers don’t get headaches and traumatic brain injuries like we humans do.

The woodpecker’s nictitating membrane or third eyelid closes during the peck, so the eye is protected from flying chips. The eye itself is adapted to protect the retina from being detached by the force. The muscles of the head and neck cushion the shock and there are special adaptations in the neck that also help.

It all works for the good of a variety of woodpeckers. A resulting woodpecker “holy tree” makes bird condos of different sized and shaped holes that provide shelters for a wide variety of cavity nesters like nuthatches and chickadees, and sometimes flying squirrels. Woodpeckers make a dying tree useful for many creatures, and the process is amazing to observe. The photo shows a beautiful male pileated woodpecker recently working a tree root in my yard.

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