The secret lives of Sonoma County’s woodpeckers
Groups of birds have been tagged with some literary names that are less descriptive than they are a reflection of human perceptions - for example, a “murder” of crows, a “charm” of hummingbirds, a “parliament” of owls. A group of woodpeckers is called a “descent,” a relatively descriptive moniker referring to their tendency to work for the tops of trees downward.
Watching woodpeckers this time of year can feel like a trip to an elegant circus at which all the clowns are dressed in formal wear with just a bit of flair. Some of these avian clowns are majestic and staid with a flaming red crest above a black feathered coat (pileated woodpecker). Others have comically wide white-irised eyes and red skull-caps (acorn woodpecker), or polka dot-covered chests and red-shafted tails (northern flicker). With a tendency towards raucous conversation, and the mind-boggling habit of bashing their heads against hard objects, these unique birds offer a three-ring opportunity to enjoy and learn from nature.
No fewer than eleven woodpecker species have been recorded in Sonoma County, although not all are equally apparent. Migratory species, like the red-breasted sapsucker and Lewis’s woodpecker can be elusive and are mostly spotted in our area during autumn and winter. Several of our resident species, like the acorn and downy woodpeckers, are so common they can be seen in suburban neighborhoods and at backyard feeders. And then there are those which, when we are lucky enough to see them, simply take our breath away.
I’ll never forget my first woodpecker encounter in Sonoma County. I had just moved here in 2005 and had taken a long hike in the Mayacamas to familiarize myself with this new and lovely terrain. Resting in the deep shade of redwood trees along a creek, I suddenly heard a loud commotion and rustling branches that I was convinced came from a troop of monkeys. Wuk! Wuk! Wuk! Wuk! Wuk! Wuk! Wuk! Wuk!
Presently, a group (or “descent”) of five pileated woodpeckers alit on the trees around me. About the size of a crow, the pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America (historically bested only by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which is now probably extinct). With their flaming red crest, bold white-striped faces and impressive glossy black backs, pileated woodpeckers are certainly among the most stunning creatures in our forests.
So, why do woodpeckers peck?
Most woodpeckers prefer to dine on insects, although some augment their diet with nuts, seeds, and even sap tapped expertly from trees or nectar stolen from hummingbird feeders.
Some, but not all, woodpeckers use with their chisel-like beak and long tongues to glean insects from bark or pry them from crevices and pecked holes. Others, like Lewis’s woodpecker, act like flycatchers, acrobatically darting about and catching insects on the wing. Northern flickers are mostly forage on the ground.
While feeding behaviors vary by species, most woodpeckers share the habit of using their strong bills to hammer rhythmically against trees or other resonant structures like trash cans or metal siding. This “drumming” has nothing to do with finding food. Woodpeckers drum to communicate with one another, defend their territories and attract mates. And, to the chagrin of some humans, the louder the better. That northern flicker drumming on your rain gutter? It truly was not sent to annoy you; it’s driven by hormones and instinct.
Drumming woodpeckers can hit their heads over 20 times per second, with a force that has been measured at 1000-1500 times that of gravity (by comparison, most humans pass out at g-forces less than 10). How do they do it? These remarkable birds have evolved a suite of adaptations that not only cushion their brains but insure each peck is so expertly aligned that over 99 percent of the force is dissipated through their bodies.
Let’s meet some of the different types of woodpeckers.
Pileated woodpeckers are birds of the forest. They dine mostly on carpenter ants, wood-boring beetle larvae and termites, which they extract with their tongues after chipping away on large trees, stumps, or even logs on the forest floor. If you come across a pile of wood shards at the base of an tree or snag, chances are if you look up you will see the characteristic rectangular holes, sometimes a foot long, that pileateds leave behind. Or you may be lucky enough to find a nest hole excavated by a male and female pair.
Pileated woodpeckers are monogamous and mate for life. Acorn woodpeckers, on the other hand, live in family clans with multiple breeding females and multiple breeding males, all of whom attempt to mate with all of the breeders of opposite gender in their clan. This communal marital arrangement, rife with drama befitting a soap opera (including the destruction of a rival bird’s eggs), is supported by as many as ten non-breeding adults, who stick around for up to five years to help raise the clan’s yearly offspring. Throughout their servitude as family helpers, these non-breeding adults must also be searching for new colonies that may have a vacancy so they can finally move out of their parents’ basement, so to speak. Woodpecker expert Walt Koenig, who has studied these quirky birds for four decades, believes that acorn woodpeckers may have the most complicated social structure of all vertebrate animals. And that includes us humans.
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