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Bay Area Birds: Woodpeckers – A splash of winter color

By Charlie Frisk

For birders, the depth of winter is also a low point for bird sightings.

No worries.

Woodpeckers continue to provide entertainment at our bird feeders and on our walks in the woods because many species are non-migratory.

We have all been entertained by the sound of woodpeckers pounding on trees.

Most of the time, they are searching for insects or creating a nesting hole, but they also drum in rapid rhythmic succession to establish their territories and to attract mates.  

When drumming, they select dry, hollow branches or even metal surfaces because those produce the loudest and best noise. 

Biologists have been mystified as to how woodpeckers can peck on hard surfaces their entire life without producing brain damage.

The NFL has determined that any impact more than 80g can cause concussions – g refers to the force of gravity; 80g would be 80 times the force of gravity.

Woodpeckers experience impacts more than 1,200g, and will strike the tree up to 20 times per second, so this is a lot of impact events.

Compared to other birds, woodpeckers have much stiffer and stronger skull bones.  

They also have less fluid separating the brain from the skull bone.

Having harder and tougher bones lessens the amount of impact transferred to the brain, and having less internal fluid surrounding the brain limits the motion of the brain during pecking.

They also wrap their long tongue around the back of their skull while pecking, which presumably provides a degree of cushioning.

The most common and smallest woodpecker in the Green Bay area is the downy.

The downy is a striking black and white bird.

Males have a small red patch on the back of the head, which the females lack.

They are attracted to suet blocks, but will also eat black oil sunflower seeds.

The hairy woodpecker is almost a carbon copy of the downy, just larger and with a proportionally longer beak.

With their similar appearance, it would seem logical they are close relatives, but in reality, they are not.

Scientists are still trying to determine why these two species look so similar.

One hypothesis is the downy mimics the larger hairy to reduce aggression from hairy woodpeckers and other species, but no one knows for certain. 

Another common local woodpecker is the red-bellied.  

With black and white barring on their back and bright red head, they are a beautiful bird.  

In males, the red nape continues all of the way to the beak, but in females, it stops above the eye.

The red-bellied has the most varied diet of any of our local woodpeckers.

They are quite omnivorous, eating nuts, fruit, seeds and sap.

I have seen them feeding from hummingbird feeders and eating the oranges and grape jelly put out for orioles. 

Red-bellied woodpeckers are vocal birds with a wide range of calls.

You’re likely to hear them before you see them and if you become familiar with their calls, you will find them more often.

Red bellied young tend to have a real “failure to launch.”

They will chase their parents, begging for food, long after they seem old enough to take care of themselves.  

I think their parents would agree because you will frequently see them fleeing from juveniles as big as they are.  

The area’s largest woodpecker is the pileated.  

Many bird books describe it as being crow sized, and while it has a similar body length and wingspan, it is not as robustly built as a crow.  

Pileateds have beautiful black, white and red plumage. 

The male has a red malar (feathers along the lower side of jaw), and their red crest extends to the beak.  

The female has a black malar, and the red crest stops above the eye.  

Holes drilled by pileateds are distinctive from all our other woodpeckers – they are rectangular rather than round.

Pileateds can create a hole large enough they can place their entire body into the hole and will sometimes drill all of the way through a tree trunk.  Pileateds are usually found in larger wood plots.  

Baird Creek Greenway and Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and other urban parks provide your best chance of seeing one in the Green Bay area.

Though they are seen occasionally in residential areas.  

Setting out several kinds of suet can increase your chances of seeing woodpeckers with several kinds of suet.  

I use raw beef suet from a butcher shop, commercial suet blocks and homemade suet recipes, many of which are available online.  

If you buy suet blocks, avoid those that are primarily cracked corn or corn meal, as no bird species other than house sparrows will eat them.

Except for the raw suet, any food that attracts woodpeckers will also attract squirrels, so you will need a squirrel-proof location.

Check out how to squirrel-proof your feeders in a future column.

Editor’s note: Bay Area Birds is a monthly column written by local ornithology enthusiast Charlie Frisk.

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