Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Woodpeckers Galore

The two+ acre pond at the family farm in Mississippi with its decaying oak trees is the ideal habitat for several species of woodpeckers. Red-headed, Downy and Pileated are the three species we see most here.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated woodpeckers are the largest of the common woodpeckers in North America and are about the size of a crow. They are impressive with their zebra striped heads and distinctive red crest. They forage for their favorite food, carpenter ants, by digging large, rectangular holes into trees. These holes are very extensive and attract other woodpeckers and house wrens.


A Pileated pair will stay together for the year. They usually nest in older trees because they are larger. A pileated can spend up to 30 days carving out their nesting cavity. The nest holes they make also provide shelter to other species including swifts, owls, ducks, and bats.

Red-headed woodpeckers are smaller, about the size of a robin. They like open woodlands, forest edges, and wooded swamps. They are mostly solitary birds; however, both parent help raise the young. Nesting cavities are usually in a bare, dead tree and the male's winter roosting cavity is sometimes used or a new cavity is created.


The Red-headed are opportunistic foragers eating insects, spiders, earthworms, nuts, seeds, berries, fruit and occasionally bird eggs and mice. They don't usually drill for food like other woodpeckers. We often see them flying out from a perch to catch insects. 


They gather nuts and store them in crevices and holes and feed on them throughout the winter. If a nut doesn't fit in the intended hole they will break the nut into pieces instead of making the hole larger. They are the only woodpecker that will cover stored food with wood or bark.

retrieving an acorn from a crevice
One morning there was a lot of squabbling going on between two woodpeckers over a particular cavity. I first saw this red-headed woodpecker at the cavity looking like he owned it.


But not so fast. Who is coming?


This Downy woodpecker was not at all happy that the red-headed woodpecker was there and he swooped down, diving at him letting him know.

Red-headed at cavity, Downy doing fly by
Back and forth the Downy went, being very vocal. Was this in fact the nesting cavity of a downy? The red-headed eventually left, leaving the Downy to claim this hole.

Male Downy at nesting cavity

The female Downy is usually the one to select the nesting site and then both male and female will excavate the cavity which usually takes a week to complete. Downies typically drill a new cavity each year. Previous year's cavities are used by chickadees, titmice, wrens and sometimes bluebirds.

Going in

Occasionally a red-headed woodpecker will finish excavating a cavity that was started by another animal. Is that what was going on that morning?

The Red-headed woodpecker was once common but is a declining species. A 50% loss has been recorded across its range since 1966. A loss of potential nesting sites-cutting down of dead trees-is one possible reason. Loss of an important food source-beech trees-has also contributed to the population decline. The red-headed woodpecker is a protected bird and is listed as near threatened. The good news is that I counted 7 red-headed woodpeckers at one time at the pond.

Two red-headed woodpeckers. It is mating season after all!
Habitat loss is the greatest threat to woodpeckers. While many species have adapted to suburban backyards and urban parks, some, like the Pileated woodpecker need large tracts of forest in which to breed. Without decaying trees they need to nest and raise their young their populations will continue to decline. As we witness at the family farm, there is a great deal of habitat overlap with woodpecker species and little competition for food and nesting sources since each of these woodpeckers has their own niche.

Some fun facts about woodpeckers:
  • The most common plumage colors for all woodpeckers is black, white, red and yellow.
  • A woodpecker's tongue is about 4" long, depending on the species, which is used to get insects.
  • Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet (toes facing front and toes facing back) which helps them grip trees as they climb.
  • Woodpeckers do not have a vocal song, instead they drum on hollow trees and other resonant objects. They drum to attract mates, establish territories, and communicate with one another.
  • No, they don't get headaches. Woodpeckers have reinforced skulls structured to spread the impact of force from pecking. Their brain is also tightly cushion and protected.
  • Woodpeckers can peck 20 times per second; a total of 8,000 to 12,000 times a day.

21 comments:

  1. Great photos of them and very informative post. Glad they aren't drilling holes in my trees though.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

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  2. You are so incredibly lucky to have pileated and red headed woodpeckers! We have downy, hairy, red bellied woodpeckers plus northern flickers. They are among my favorite birds, so much fun to watch!

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    1. And, I've never seen a flicker in our garden. Great that you have several species of woodpeckers in your garden! I agree they are very interesting to observe especially during mating season!

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  3. I love that red headed woodpecker. I don't think I have seen one of them, but they are in our area. The Pileated I see at the Falls, the Downys live in my backyard. Really nice photos, Karin, I know how hard it is to get those captures.

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    1. Thanks Donna! The biggest challenge was being on the same side of the tree the birds were on. The trees are actually far away from where I was standing and I had to really crop the photos. The Pileated were the most shy. I only got to photograph them one time and then they stayed hidden although I heard them. They have a very distinct drilling sound.

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  4. I remember seeing pileated woodpeckers more when I was a little kid, growing up in Indiana. Here in my current backyard, we have a lot of downies and hairies, and some flickers and sapsuckers. I always worry that trees are diseased or dying when a lot of woodpeckers are around. Turns out, our neighbors just had two big Oaks removed--one was entirely hollow! I think most of ours near the house are OK and the ones in the woods we just let go via the natural course of nature. Great post with helpful info about woodpeckers! Thanks!

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    1. All woodpecker species are different. I think they are a really misunderstood bird. Each species has distinct eating and nesting habits. Not all use dead trees but those that do are really loosing habitat because people don't want dead trees in their garden. We leave ours up just for the wildlife unless the tree is in danger of falling somewhere that will cause damage. Even cutting down a tree and leaving it laying on the ground in the landscape will help the woodpeckers and they can be landscaped around and look attractive. Kudos to you for leaving the ones in the woods for nature!

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  5. Beautiful woodpecker shots!! We have Pileateds here -- in fact every local species except Red-Headed Woodpeckers. Which is odd, because nearly Howell Woods has them and the habitat there is very similar to ours here.

    You asked about the Vitex -- it does attract butterflies, and bees adore it!

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    1. Lucky you to have Pileated! They are such amazing birds. There must be something in Howell Woods that is lacking otherwise you would think the red-headed would come.

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  6. Karen since putting up a suet feeder we have found more woodpeckers visiting. We always see pileated in spring around the garden since we have lots of woods around, but we have never seen the red-headed woodpecker. What great info and the pictures are amazing.

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  7. Fantastic photos. When we lived on the west coast we saw pileated woodpeckers all the time, I miss those birds. They are really magnificent to see. Now we only get the downy ones it seems, they're charming but a lot harder to see.

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  8. Awesome shots, and info, Karin. I often wondered whether woodpeckers got headaches (now I know ;>)

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  9. Great photos! And the news about downys drilling a new hole each year was fascinating. I suspect they are the architects of quite a few of the holes in our old, declining black willows.

    Like Jason, we have downy and red-bellied woodpeckers and flickers. We also have hairy woodpeckers, they are just not as common as the others.

    I used to see red-headed woodpeckers fairly frequently in Kansas during the summers, but I can't remember the last time I saw one. I keep hoping, though! I miss their big white wing patches and deep red heads. Because they weren't here year 'round, seeing them always gave us a little thrill.

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  10. Your photos were superb. I have always wanted to know more about the birds I see; this was very useful information, thank you.

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  11. What beautiful photos! Every time I attempt to photograph our sapsuckers, our dogs frighten them away. The Pileated woodpeckers are just gorgeous--and I really enjoyed your great information. Happy birding!

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  12. Oh my goodness--- that photo of the Redheaded Woodpecker flying straight to the camera is incredible!!!! We have had a lot of woodpecker activity this winter, which is lots of fun to watch. Last year we didn't see any Redheaded Woodpeckers....this year he was a constant visitor in the backyard. Your photos are really wonderful.

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  13. Nice to see all of your woodpeckers! We have a red-bellied woodpecker that visits us for our suet. And have seen pileated woodpeckers around the streets of our small town, which is very unusual! Happy Spring, Karin!
    ~Julie

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  14. I love the colors, nature seems to always be more creative than fashion on the streets!

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  15. How beautiful! I have yet to see any pileated woodpeckers, but we had a couple red-headed ones and downy woodpeckers that I saw often. I love woodpeckers, though we did have at least one that liked to tap on our gutter early in the morning during the spring time.

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  16. I love woodpeckers! We have a few species here too, including the Pileated. I've never succeeded in a getting a photo of them though, as they're often quite high up in our Douglas Fir trees. You can definitely hear them though. Their drilling sounds like a jack-hammer some mornings, and the sounds is quite unmistakable! Your red-headed woodpeckers remind me of the Patagonian woodpeckers I saw once in South America...although those birds were impressively huge. Gorgeous though, I love those red heads!

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