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 where 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.