2018-03-22 / Nature

Woodpeckers: Carpenters of Hard Knocks

By Charles Avenengo

Downy woodpecker Downy woodpecker As Aquidneck Island residents dream wistfully about warmer weather, some types of birds, like owls, don’t care about the dreary temperatures. Their nesting season is already underway.

Woodpeckers have also begun breeding season. A walk into the woods will reveal their heightened activity. Groups of three and four woodpeckers are chasing each other about, jostling for mates. Their distinctive drumming is also currently accentuated. In addition to foraging for food, excavating cavities and establishing territories, the woodpecker’s rapid drum tattoos are also invitations to breed.

The rapid-fire hammering that would make human carpenters envious has been known to drive homeowners crazy, especially when the woodpeckers drum on aluminum rain gutters. While drilling can be an unwanted early morning alarm clock for people, the woodpeckers drum on resonant objects like gutters to communicate with each other.

Flicker woodpecker Flicker woodpecker To say that woodpeckers are unique in the world of birds is an understatement. They live much of their lives vertically suspended. In order to pull this off, woodpeckers have two facing toes in each direction, allowing for their gravity defying grip. They also have long tongues to extract their food. When retracted, these tongues wrap around their skulls.

Like carpenters, woodpeckers generate a lot of sawdust. In order to protect themselves from the flying chips, they have soft nasal feathers and special air sacs to filter away the dust. Like sharks, they also have a translucent eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, which closes when they are drumming. Similar to woodshop googles, this membrane protects their eyes but still allows them to see clearly.

Their drumming has been recorded at 20 strikes per second, with an estimated total of up to 12,000 daily pecks.

Pileated woodpecker Pileated woodpecker How can they do this without turning their brains into mush? They have reinforced, sponge-like, shock-absorbing skulls structured to spread the impact force and cushion the brain. Researchers are constantly examining this phenomenon to see how it could be applied to items like airplane black boxes, football helmets and automobile shock-absorbers.

North America has 22 species of woodpeckers, plus one that is presumed extinct. Aquidneck Island has six types, four that breed here.

The most familiar are the small downy woodpeckers, which can be seen at virtually any suburban feeding station on the island. Males are recognized by the red patch on the back of the head.

Far less common on Aquidneck Island are hairy woodpeckers. A larger carbon copy of downy woodpeckers, this species can be found in other parts of the state, but they are rarely seen here.

A third species, the red-bellied woodpeckers, are a relatively recent arrival to the state, not being observed until 1965.

The fourth species is the yellow shafted flicker. The largest of the island’s woodpeckers, flickers will often feed on the ground in search of ants, which is one of their favorite foods.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is not just the butt of cartoonist’s jokes. They are uncommon winter visitors to the island during the colder months. Generally, one or two will winter at Miantonomi Park. However, they were absent this winter.

Finally, red-headed woodpeckers are the most uncommon woodpecker in the state. They are rarely observed on Aquidneck Island, and typically only during migration.

Of the North American woodpeckers, the largest is the impressive pileated woodpecker. Although not present on the island, they can be seen in wooded areas of Rhode Island. These crow-sized woodpeckers were roughly used as the model for the anthropomorphic cartoon character Woody Woodpecker.

An even larger species, the ivory billed woodpecker is also feared to be extinct. Formerly a denizen of old growth hardwood forests in the American south and Cuba, they dwarfed the pileated woodpeckers. The last sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was in in eastern Cuba in 1986.

In April 2003, Newport This Week ran a feature article about a Jamestown forester, Matthew Largess, who joined an expedition in Arkansas to search for the mythical bird. Their efforts, like so many others in the past century, were unsuccessful.

Less known to most naturalists north of the border and the largest of all woodpeckers is the Imperial Woodpecker of the Mexican Sierra Madre highlands, which is also feared to be extinct.

So, hang in there, because the warm weather is coming and the current woodpecker cacophony will eventually subside to a dull roar.

Early Spring Arrivals to Rhode Island

Double-crested cormorant
Black-crowned night heron
Wood duck
American oystercatcher
American woodcock
Wilson’s snipe
Eastern phoebe
Brown-headed cowbird

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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