2016-03-17 / Front Page

Why Do Woodpeckers Peck?

By Jack Kelly


A Northern flicker. Note to homeowners with wooden shingles or clapboards: If a woodpecker consistently returns to an area on your home’s exterior and is drumming or drilling, check for the presence of carpenter ants, termites or other insects destructive to wood. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A Northern flicker. Note to homeowners with wooden shingles or clapboards: If a woodpecker consistently returns to an area on your home’s exterior and is drumming or drilling, check for the presence of carpenter ants, termites or other insects destructive to wood. (Photos by Jack Kelly) With spring mating season approaching, the pecking sounds of adult male woodpeckers may be heard across Aquidneck Island. Most species use rapid-fire, loud drumming to mark their territories or to attract and communicate with mates. While females forage for insects by pecking at trees, single non-paired males will drum on trees, limbs, vinyl siding, wooden clapboards, shingles, and even chimney pipes to broadcast their availability. As a long-time birder has said, “The loudest bird gets the girl!”

Woodpeckers forage on trees usually by removing bark or drilling holes with their chisel-like bills to feed on insects and their larvae. They excavate cavities in trees for nesting, and the noise from these prolonged projects often echo around the region’s forests.


A male downy woodpecker. Note his red nape spot. A male downy woodpecker. Note his red nape spot. The birds have strong feet, with their toes in a zygodactyl arrangement (two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards). Stiff tails help them brace as they hitch up trees in small vertical movements, or “leaps.” A woodpecker’s tongue, which is strong, barbed, and very long (up to five inches in some species), is designed to extract prey from tight places.

Mating rituals for woodpeckers are elaborate. Most breeds can be observed raising their crown feathers and spreading their wings while clinging to a tree and bobbing rhythmically together. Biologists believe that pairs mate for life, and they communicate with “fuss” or “whinny” calls in addition to drumming.


A male red-bellied woodpecker. Note his reddish-pink belly wash. A male red-bellied woodpecker. Note his reddish-pink belly wash. Aquidneck Island is home to a number of resident woodpecker species. The petite and adaptable downy woodpecker can be found across most of the continental United States, most of southern Canada, and Alaska, with some migrating south in the late fall to warmer climes and returning north in the spring. With a body length of only six inches and a wingspan of 11.5 inches, the downy woodpecker is drawn to backyard feeders and suet cages, faring well in suburban settings. The black and white coloration on its head, back and wings is offset by the white of its underparts, and the outer retrices often show black spots and barring. Adult males have a bright red nape spot behind the head, which the female lacks.

The hairy woodpecker displays colors similar to the downy, but it is larger with a body length of nine inches, a wingspan of 14.5 inches, and lacks the barring of the outer retrices. Males are also distinguished by a red nape spot. It has much the same range as the downy, and follows the same migration practices.

The red-bellied woodpecker is a striking bird with a neat, zebrastriped pattern across its back and wings and a reddish crown and nape. Its central lower belly has a red or pink wash, which is most pronounced in the male. Found mostly in the central and eastern United States, this species has slowly expanded its range northward into wooded habitats and well-treed cities and suburbs. It has a wingspan of 16 inches and a body length of 9.25 inches and forages for seeds, insects and fruits. This particular breed hoards food in tree crevices for future meals.

The northern flicker is a large woodpecker found throughout most of North America, and features a body length of 12 inches and a wingspan of 20 inches. Those in our region are of the eastern subspecies known as the yellow shafted flicker, named for the bright saffron-colored remiges and coverts in the underwings. It has a tan-brown face and throat, black malar mark, red nape mark, black and brown striped back, yellow underwings, and a white rump that is prominent in flight. Feeding mainly on ants, the bird also forages for other insects.


The osprey pair that has nested at Toppa Field the past 10 seasons. The female is flying into the nest with a fish, and the male is enjoying his fish on one of the light poles. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The osprey pair that has nested at Toppa Field the past 10 seasons. The female is flying into the nest with a fish, and the male is enjoying his fish on one of the light poles. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The yellow-bellied sapsucker may be found across our forested habitats during the winter season and migration cycles, and there were sightings this winter at the Norman Bird Sanctuary and in the wooded areas of Miantonomi Park. A red-headed woodpecker, an uncommon migrant visitor to the island, was also observed at the park during last year’s spring migration as it moved toward nesting grounds north of Rhode Island.

These interesting and entertaining species are just a few of the scores of avian breeds which will soon fill the air with songs and calls as they begin the cycle of life for the next generation of birds.

The latter part of March marks the return of locally-nesting ospreys to our region. The matedfor life adults usually arrive at their nest separately and begin their courtship and mating rituals any time after mid-month. Ospreys are the only birds of prey that eat fish exclusively, and the species may be observed feeding from most freshwater and saltwater sources on the island.

The nest that occupied the cell tower at Toppa Field for the past 10 seasons was removed last October when repairs needed to be made to the tower’s equipment. Ospreys are known to rebuild in the same location approximately 90 percent of the time when their nests are damaged by storms or removed for any number of reasons. It will be interesting to see what the pair does when they return in a matter of days.

A sub-adult pair built a “practice nest” on the pole platform at the east end of Gooseberry Beach last summer and maintained a close bonding during that time. The couple was observed fishing in the waters off Gooseberry Beach, Hazard Beach, and in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes before migrating to South America last fall. Their return is highly anticipated and hopes are that the pair will produce offspring this year.

The public’s help is always appreciated in noting the arrival of established pairs, and information is also sought on new nests on the island. Anyone wishing to report osprey activities or new nesting can contact Jack Kelly at jackkellybdmn@gmail.com or at 401-595- 6125. For more information on the local osprey population or for ways to observe them, visit the Audubon Society of Rhode Island at asri.org or call 401-949-5454.

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