Outdoors: Woodpeckers; Nature’s Little Drummer Boys

Steve Gilliland
Special to the Globe

I marveled at the woodpecker hammering away at the top of the power pole along our alley.

“Probably not much to be had there little buddy,” I thought, but what do I know since grubs aren’t really on my diet.

Whether it’s fishing along a deserted stretch of riverbank, or attempting to sit motionless and silently under a tree or bush awaiting a spring gobbler, I’ve always noticed that there seems to be an apparent abundance of woodpeckers in the spring.

I’m not complaining, mind you as their staccato hammering is a nice percussion addition to nature’s spring symphony. It’s just that I seem to hear so many more of them in spring than any other time of the year. Well, I believe I’ve found the answer to my question, and here’s a little “woodpecker 101” to boot.

Woodpeckers are found everywhere on the planet except Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. The largest is the great slaty in Southeast Asia that can grow to 20 inches long, and the smallest are only three to four-inches long and belong to a group from South America called the piculets.

Kansas is home to about a dozen species. Woodpeckers mate for life, and after eggs are laid, both parents help with incubation. They are omnivores, meaning they eat most anything, and their diet includes insects and insect larvae, tree sap, seeds and nuts.

Most woodpeckers have long tongues to reach deep into holes to extract insects and larvae. That tongue can be as long as four inches on certain species and when not in use it’s actually stored wrapped around the back of its head in a special sort of pouch between the skin and the skull.

Woodpeckers are easy to spot in flight as they have a very different and distinct flight pattern.

They flap their wings three times and then glide, then three more flaps, then glide, etc. until they reach their destination; this flight pattern never changes.

I’m sure we’ve all seen woodpeckers hanging vertically from the side of a tree as they dig for insects, and God has specifically designed them for all aspects of that job.

The toes of their feet point both forward and backwards to hold them in place, and they have long stiffened tail feathers that prop them up like leaning against the back of a chair.

Their beaks are long, slender and uniquely self-sharpening, and the machine-gun-like sound we hear them making as they drill for insects and grubs is known as “drumming.”

Woodpeckers’ brains are protected by special air pockets in their skulls that cushions each blow as they drum, which can be 20 times per second and amount to more than 10, 000 times each day.

I’ve always thought that woodpeckers hammered away on trees and poles solely to search for insects and larvae, but I’ve learned that’s only part of the story. Both male and female woodpeckers drum, and besides digging for food, they drum to excavate den holes in dead trees, which they do anew each year, and since woodpeckers do not have vocal songs, they drum to communicate, and to establish territories and attract mates if they don’t have one.

So, it all fits that I would hear them more often now in early spring as they prepare new nests, establish their territories and communicate to prospective mates.

That one drummin’ away on our power pole was probably the equivalent of him draggin’ main for chicks!

Ya’ know, the Kansas outdoors is one huge classroom, and it’s great when I also learn something from what I write. And by the way, this year the most famous woodpecker of all times, Woody, turns 81 years old; that’s a lot of drummin’!

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Steve can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com