5 Fun Facts About Woodpeckers

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Woodpeckers are a common visitor to backyard bird feeders, and are easy to attract thanks to their varied palette and trusting nature toward humans. Their antics capture the hearts of nearly everyone they cross paths with, often landing themselves as a "spark bird" (the bird who created a birder for life) for many. While they may be an ordinary sight in our backyards, woodpeckers are anything but ordinary when it comes to their habits & physiology. This list could be miles long, but here are my top five fun facts about woodpeckers.

Juvenile Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

1. Woodpeckers don't get headaches.
Just watching a woodpecker bang away on a tree is enough to give me a headache, so why don't they get them? Woodpeckers have evolved to have a special system to protect their brains. Unlike humans who have a liquid-filled case surrounding their brains, woodpeckers have strong muscles tightly cradling their brains to help protect them from injury while hammering into a hard tree. Woodpeckers also have a thick third eyelid, known as the nictitating membrane, which is used to protect the eyes from flying debris, but also to keep them from essentially popping out of socket during excavation - think of them like a safety belt for the eye. These two mechanisms are put in place a split-second before impact, keeping the woodpecker safe from any injuries. These safety measures do not employ themselves when the impact is unintended, such as a window strike or vehicle collision. In these instances it is entirely possible for a woodpecker to sustain injuries to its brain or eyes, and is often fatal. To decrease the chance of window strikes from occurring in your home, be sure to install window markers like Feather Friendly or Window Alert Decals.

2. Red-headed Woodpeckers hide their food in an uncommon way.

Many woodpeckers hide, or cache, food for times when food is scarce or weather makes it tough to forage. Typically this entails the woodpecker grabbing a piece of food, like a peanut or sunflower seed, and jamming it into a crevice in a tree, fence post, or even along a deck or siding of a house, but Red-headed Woodpeckers take caching to a whole new level. These clever woodpeckers will stuff their food (seeds or insects) into a crack in a tree, fence, etc. and cover the stored food with a piece of bark or wood to further camouflage it from other foraging animals. Sometimes they will even store live grasshoppers, wedging them into spaces to small that they can't escape, and covering them with debris.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) drilling out sap wells

3. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers feed.. hummingbirds?
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are named so for a reason: they suck sap. In the spring, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers create "sap wells" which are holes drilled into a tree's (typically birch or maple) cambium layer or inner bark to allow the sap within to flow out of the tree and down the trunk. These holes are precisely drilled in neat rows, and must be maintained throughout the season to allow sap to continue to flow. Sapsuckers then drink the sap using their brush-like tongues, and also consume insects attracted to the sticky sap. Other animals enjoy the sap as well, including Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who use the sap as a "first food" during spring migration. It's been noted that Ruby-throated Hummingbird northward migration coincides directly with when sap is ready to flow, and that they will deliberately nest near sap wells for a reliable and consistent source of food for their hungry families. 

4. Hairy Woodpeckers play follow the leader with Pileated Woodpeckers.
Hairy Woodpeckers have the whole "work smarter, not harder" thing down to a science. Hairy Woodpeckers have been known to follow their much larger cousins around, listening for the loud thumps of excavation and appearing nearby soon after. Hairys will watch and wait for the Pileated Woodpecker to move on to a new site, then investigate the hole and pick out any insects the pileated may have left behind. 

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

5. How much wood could a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker could peck wood?
We all know woodpeckers peck wood.. it's literally their name. They peck for food, to communicate with one another, and to excavate their homes. But while we're watching them in the trees it can be difficult to tell just how much they peck. Studies have shown that a woodpecker has the ability to peck up to 20 times per second, or a total of 8000 to 12000 pecks per day, all without so much as light headache thanks to their cerebral support systems (see #1).

As you can see, woodpeckers are nothing short of industrious, agile, and intelligent. Their uniqueness is unmatched, and is a large part of what makes them so endearing to beginner and seasoned birders alike. Next time you're in the woods, or in your own backyard, keep an eye out for these incredible birds and observe them closely, you may just come up with your own facts to add to the list!

Happy trails!
- Shayna