Woodpecker is a bird that uses its
long, chisellike bill for drilling into trees. Woodpeckers bore holes in bark and wood to
find food and build nests. These small- to medium-sized birds live in almost all parts of
Body. Woodpeckers have several features that are especially useful to their way of life.
Strong feet and sharp claws enable the birds to climb up and down tree trunks and to cling
to bark. Most woodpeckers have two front toes and two hind toes, an arrangement that helps
them to climb without falling backwards. Stiff tail feathers brace the birds against the
tree trunk. Strong neck muscles propel the bird's head rapidly back and forth while it
drills. Muscles on the head act as shock absorbers, protecting the skull from the impact
Many woodpeckers are black and white or brown and white, and many are banded or spotted.
Males of most species have some red feathers on their head.
Habits. Woodpeckers use their bill to probe bark and wood for the adult insects and insect
larvae they eat. They draw the food out with an extremely long, sticky tongue that has a
barbed tip. Some woodpeckers also catch insects on the ground or in the air. In addition,
many woodpeckers eat fruit and nuts. The wood-boring insects that woodpeckers eat are
available the year around. For this reason, few woodpeckers migrate.
For nests, woodpeckers dig holes in the trunks of trees or, sometimes, in the ground or in
buildings. The nest may extend 6 to 18 inches (15 to 45 centimeters) below the entrance.
It has no lining except for wood chips. A female woodpecker lays two to eight white eggs.
A woodpecker's call consists of a series of harsh notes. The birds also drum with their
bills on dead branches or on anything hollow. They use this sound to advertise their
presence and defend their territory. Except for nesting pairs, most woodpeckers live
Woodpeckers occasionally damage buildings and trees when they dig holes in them. However,
woodpeckers are mostly beneficial to human beings, feeding upon insects that damage timber
and agricultural crops.
Kinds. There are about 200 species of woodpeckers, but only about 23 species live in North
America. Their habitat ranges from evergreen forests to arid deserts.
The large ivory-billed woodpecker once lived in the swampy forests of the southeastern
United States. Logging has destroyed most of its habitat, and for many years it was feared
to be extinct. In 1986, at least two of these birds were sighted in Cuba. Some people
mistake the male pileated woodpecker for the ivory-bill because both birds have red crests
on their heads. However, the pileated woodpecker remains fairly common in North American
forests. The acorn woodpecker of the western United States drills holes for storing
acorns, which it eats when other food is scarce. The redheaded woodpecker of the eastern
and midwestern United States has a bright-red head and neck. It also stores nuts and corn
for the winter. Flickers are among the most common North American woodpeckers. They feed
mainly on the ground and are especially fond of ants.
Scientific classification. Woodpeckers belong to the woodpecker family, Picidae. The
ivory-billed woodpecker is Campephilus principalis; the pileated is Dryocopus pileatus;
the acorn is Melanerpes formicivorus; and the redheaded is M. erythrocephalus.
Contributor: Harlo H. Hadow, Ph.D., Prof. of Biology, Coe College.