Friday, February 26, 2021

Woodpeckers: Nature’s Tree Drummers

woodpeckerIf you have a love for the great outdoors, chances are you have heard and or seen “Tree Drummers,” the creatures we call woodpeckers.  There are nine species of woodpeckers here in New York; Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Black-backed Woodpeckers.


Woodpeckers peck into trees in search of food or to create a nesting site. They also “drum,” or peck in a rapid succession to establish their territory and attract mates. Drumming usually occurs in the spring on metal or wood resonant surfaces.

Slamming a beak against the trunk of a tree would seem like an activity that would cause headaches, jaw aches and serious neck and brain injuries.  Woodpeckers endure many high impact shocks to their heads as they peck.  Their bodies are built to withstand the impact with strong tail feathers and claws that help them keep their balance as their head moves toward the tree trunk at 7 meters, 23 feet per second. When their beak strikes, their heads slow down at about 1,200 times the force of gravity. All of this happens without the woodpecker sustaining brain damage.  The woodpecker’s unusual skull and tongue bones are impact-resistant structures essential for protecting the woodpecker’s brain during its adamant pecking behavior.  The skull bones have a different chemical composition and density with the accumulation of minerals in the bones to make them stiffer and stronger compared to other birds. Surprisingly, the skull bone is very thin and there is less fluid that separates the brain from the skull bone than in other birds.  This helps to limit the motion of the brain during pecking. The reduced amount of fluid has an effect that is similar to the yolk of a hard-boiled egg, which won’t get damaged by shaking, compared to the yolk of a raw, uncooked egg.

Tongue made for extracting bugs

Woodpeckers also have a bone embedded in their tongue that helps to extract insects from the trees. The unusual tongue wraps around the back of the skull and anchors at the front between the eyes. This configuration lets the tongue and its bone act as a spring, dampening the physical force and related vibrations. This structure of the tongue aids the woodpecker in foraging for ants, termites, beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, spiders, other arthropods living in dead trees and under bark.

Mating, young

Most woodpecker species are monogamous and will mate for life.  It takes about 3 weeks for a mated pair of woodpeckers to build a nest in a tree or hollow location. Eggs are laid, and incubated for 7-10 days. Baby woodpeckers stay in the nest for about 3 weeks after hatching, with both parents caring equally for the young.  Woodpeckers can be aggressive during mating season.  It’s important to remember woodpeckers drill holes in wood, not people. If you threaten their nests, they may bluff an attack by flying at you quite fiercely. While this is startling and intimidating, it is unlikely that the birds will actually harm you. These creatures are just diligently constructing their home with their inbuilt bodily tools, seeking food, shelter and a mate, let’s give them peace to do so.

The average life span of a wild woodpecker can be from 4-12 years depending on the species and in general, larger woodpeckers typically have longer lifespans and may live up to 20-30 years in ideal conditions allowing generations of individuals to experience their unique abilities.

As amazing and stunning as these creatures are, they can be known to cause damage to human dwellings. A woodpecker on a roof is a common occurrence simply because of their nature and preferences. These birds can take a liking to home materials such as metal gutters, siding, window frames, and roofing. Woodpeckers are known to peck 20 times per second. This can cause significant damage.  There are many things we can try to deter this destruction other than taking their precious lives.

Homeowners have reported success deterring woodpeckers with windsocks, pinwheels, helium balloons shiny and bright colored, strips of aluminum foil or reflective tape.

The next time you hear tree drumming, know somewhere close is an amazing animal that can withstand the hardest of blows and fly on to see another day as a part of the wonderful world of nature.

Photo of pileated woodpecker by Jackie Woodcock. 



Related Stories

Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

14 Responses

  1. nathan says:

    I have long enjoyed seeing and hearing pileated wood peckers behind my home in Washington county, they nested in one pine tree for about 20 years, then that tree went down in a storm, they built another nest in a high tension wire pole for about 12 years until the power company filled in the hole. after that i found they nested in different spot each year for about another 10 years.. VERY sadly i have not seen them around in last 2 years. There’s been a huge influx in last decade of people from down NYC way moving up here, and many more trespassers and shooting out of season. I fear that there are some new people around just shooting everything they see. just about all smaller animals have just disappeared and i cant blame it all on coyotes.

    • Boreas says:

      Pileated and Black-backed/Three-toed woodpeckers (especially the latter!) tend to be specialists. You will tend to find them where you find diseased trees with carpenter ants living within. If all the trees in your area are healthy, or have been picked clean, they will move to an area with more of their preferred food and habitat. They love my place! The Black-backed and Three-toed specialize even more. They seek out burned-over areas where certain beetle larvae thrive. Because those areas are few and far between, you are unlikely to ever see them unless you are in an area they prefer. I have been lucky enough to document both on bird atlas jaunts in the past.

  2. nathan says:

    BTW Jackie Woodcock are you related to Jerry woodcock? A long time friend of my family

  3. Gary LEE says:

    hi Jackie, never heard of a yellow bellied woodpecker, there is a yellow bellied sapsucker that looks and acts like a woodpecker.

  4. Nora says:

    I have an entire crew outside my door , this year for the first time a red-headed woodpecker graced me with his presence ., I have watched babies grow up and stay with me over the years , I have placed many different suet balls on my feeder just for them and obviously they enjoy the break from the many pine trees that surround my house.
    Again thank you Jackie for a very interesting article . Hope your project you and hubby are doing with the domes have been successful

  5. Greg Keefer says:

    Great article, thanks! One question – did you mean to name the yellow-bellied sapsucker?
    I watched a pileated woodpecker for nearly an hour the other day outside of Harpers Ferry WVA along the Potomac river. Fascinating birds. I regularly have several varieties come to my feeders and suet blocks here in Northern Virginia.

  6. Norm says:

    Love your articles, Jackie. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! One thing I noticed about all woodpeckers is that they prefer to perch/roost vertically. I have a few suet cages on a small crab apple tree and while they wait their turn, the woodpeckers prefer to roost on a vertical trunk versus a horizontal branch, like the other birds. I find that unique to woodpeckers.

  7. Wally Elton says:

    Can you ID them by their drumming (other than the sapsucker)? If so, that would make an interesting articvle.

  8. Wally Elton says:

    Very helpful article!

  9. Eric Fetterley says:

    Awesome article!! We have it very good in our neck of the woods!!

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox