With its peculiar behavior, the woodpeckers are easily distinguishable. But there is much more to these birds than meets the eye. Welcome to this list of woodpecker facts, where we discuss their unique characteristics and adaptations.
Ever wonder why woodpeckers can drum endlessly on trees without getting a headache? Or what trees do they prefer? These behaviors hold answers hidden in their ecological lifestyle. Stay with us as we unravel these mysteries through our woodpecker facts.
Related: Balance the noisy woodpecker with some wisdom from the avian world by reading our owl facts next.
Most woodpeckers, like the pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and acorn woodpecker, have adapted to various habitats worldwide. For example, the Gila woodpecker lives in the treeless deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest. While Acorn woodpeckers prefer woodlands with lots of oak.
With their adaptations, they have become a common sight in many places. However, woodpeckers do not exist in Australia, despite its abundant eucalyptus forests and temperate woodlands.
Moreover, these birds steer clear of New Zealand, New Guinea, Madagascar, and the frosty regions at the Earth's poles. However, the absence of these birds in Australia is a mystery, given its similar habitats to other parts of the world. This raises questions about the woodpecker's evolution, biogeography, and ecological influences on habitat selection.
With the endless drumming, what could be the state of these birds' brains? Find out in the woodpecker fact below.
Woodpeckers peck 20 times a second, totaling 12,000 packs a day. How can their brains withstand this constant pecking? Their ability to survive relentless pecking results from their special anatomy that works like shock absorbers2.
For example, their skulls–sturdy, spongy tissue–resemble a protective helmet for the brain. The brain sits snugly inside this helmet, leaving little wiggle room that could lead to damage during the pecking marathon.
Additionally, the hyoid bone wraps around the skull like a seatbelt for the brain. This bone also acts as the ultimate shock absorber, extending up to the nostrils to cushion the force of every peck.
Furthermore, the outer part of the beak is harder than the inner part, which helps disperse each peck's force, shielding the brain from impact.
Compared to other birds, a woodpecker's brain is smaller and contains less cerebrospinal fluid, preventing shaking movement within the skull.
Moreover, the brain's position within the head evenly distributes the force from each peck, preventing any localized brain damage. Woodpeckers are also precise and strategic in their pecking; certain species rotate the angle to reduce the impact on the brain.
Read more about our feathered friends in our bird facts of all types.
The woodpecker's long, sticky tongues allow the birds to access areas within tree bark that other species cannot reach. Their tongues can extend up to four times the length of their beak. They also have glands that make them sticky, like flypaper, allowing them to capture their prey.
Moreover, the tongue is highly flexible, allowing it to explore every crevice thoroughly. Besides eating insects, some woodpecker species eat bird eggs and hatchlings.
Woodpeckers are known for drumming, which creates a sound that one can hear throughout forests and woodlands. Aside from accessing food, their drumming is their unique way of "talking," like other birds singing or calling to each other. Each drumbeat is distinct, like a human fingerprint, and carries a message.
Furthermore, this behavior also displays power and asserts territory. Trees, commonly used as sources of food, require protection. The woodpecker's loud and rhythmic drumming sends a clear message to other nearby woodpeckers. The drumming's intensity, frequency, and rhythm may indicate the drummer's physical prowess.
The woodpecker's color pattern consists of bold blacks, whites, and flashes of red, which allow the birds to blend into the dappled shadows and sunlight on tree trunks. As a result, the woodpecker becomes difficult to spot.
Additionally, the feather patterns of the downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers consist of black bars on a white background that mimics the random patterns of tree bark. Their lighter undersides also conceal them from potential threats on the forest floor.
How do they choose any trees to peck? Our next woodpecker fact below explores their wood preferences.
As their name indicates, woodpeckers drill holes in wood and tend to do so on dead or dying trees. Their preference results from these trees' heartwood softening over time, lessening the birds' work. The heartwood is a tree trunk's central, darker, and more rigid section that no longer transports nutrients.
Additionally, the softened heartwood attracts insects and larvae, providing a food source for woodpeckers. By making holes in dead trees, they maintain the natural balance of the forest. And by managing dead woods in cities and yards, we can increase the woodpecker population in urban landscapes1.
Moreover, dead trees are also their preferred nesting site due to the softened and decaying heartwood. The following woodpecker fact explains this further.
Instead of using branches like most birds, woodpeckers live inside trees. With their sharp beaks, they chisel out safe homes for their babies. They make perfectly round holes for entrances, which keep predators out. Some species, like the pileated woodpeckers, make oval nest holes instead. Depending on the bird's size and the tree's hardness, the holes can be just a shallow pocket or a deeper burrow.
After around 11 to 14 days of incubation, the woodpecker chicks hatch completely blind, featherless, and unable to move. These nestlings rely on their parents for food and safety, feeding them insect larvae.
Within the first week, feathers appear on their bodies. Despite these transformations, the young birds remain in their nests for approximately three to four weeks, still dependent on their parents for food and safety. Once they reach the first month, these fledglings take their first flight. However, it is common to see these young birds staying close to their parents, learning essential survival.
Certain woodpecker species engage in 'anting,' which involves intentionally rubbing ants onto their feathers. Over 200 bird species also engage in this behavior.
Woodpeckers employ two main methods of anting: active anting and passive anting. The former involves picking ants up and rubbing them onto their feathers. In contrast, the latter consists of perching on anthills and letting the ants explore their feathers.
The reasons behind this behavior remain unclear, though there are theories. Some suggest that the formic acid in ants is a natural pesticide that kills feather-dwelling parasites. Others speculate it is a form of skin conditioning, while some believe it may soothe the birds during their molting phase.
Related: Discover more about these hardworking insects with our ant facts.
Certain species, such as the ivory-billed and imperial woodpeckers, are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and hunting. These once-widespread species are now struggling to survive. In 2021, the US even proposed the removal of the ivory-billed woodpeckers and 22 other species from the endangered species list, effectively declaring them extinct.
Additionally, the Okinawa woodpecker and the helmeted woodpecker from Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay are suffering population decline due to deforestation and habitat degradation caused by agriculture and cattle grazing. The North American red-headed woodpecker also suffers from decreasing populations.
However, there are efforts to save red-headed woodpeckers and other endangered species. The ivory-billed woodpecker's survival depends on preserving large areas of old-growth forests; experts have also begun discussing captive breeding.
Likewise, Japan has enacted a law protecting the Okinawa woodpecker, and there is a growing effort to protect its remaining habitat. Meanwhile, the helmeted woodpecker finds refuge in several national parks, which offer a crucial lifeline for the species.
What's your favorite woodpecker fact? Remember to share them with your friends to spread awareness for these birds' survival.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with W.
Fröhlich, A., & Ciach, M. (2020). Dead tree branches in urban forests and private gardens are key habitat components for woodpeckers in a city matrix. Landscape and Urban Planning, 202, 103869.
Wang, L., Cheung, J. T., Pu, F., Li, D., Zhang, M., & Fan, Y. (2011). Why do woodpeckers resist head impact injury: A biomechanical investigation. PLOS ONE, 6(10), e26490.