My wife and I were engaged in our favorite activity on a recent morning: bird-watching. At our feeding station were five ladderback woodpeckers and a northern flicker. They were feeding on suet and seed cylinders, and one ladderback was indulging himself at our hummingbird feeder that is awaiting the first hummingbird arrivals.
Woodpeckers are one of my favorite bird species. Woodpeckers found in New Mexico include acorn, downy, Gila, hairy, ladderbacked, Lewis's, northern flicker, red-bellied, red-headed, red-naped sapsucker, Williamson's sapsucker and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Woodpeckers are named after their most notable activity: pecking wood. Technically, the term for pecking is "drumming." They strike at speeds of 15 miles per hour, drumming at a rhythm of 20 strikes per second and performing up to 12,000 pecks per day. Drumming is done during foraging, attracting mates, establishing territory and general communication. These drumming sounds are often distinctive by species. The most common plumage colors are black, white, red and yellow.
To prevent brain damage from the rapid and repeated powerful impacts, woodpeckers have several physical features that protect the brain. These include a relatively small, smooth brain, narrow subdural space, little cerebrospinal fluid surrounding it to prevent it from moving back and forth inside the skull during pecking, the orientation of the brain within the skull (which maximizes the contact area between the brain and the skull) and the short duration of contact. The skull consists of strong but compressible sponge-like bone that is most concentrated in the forehead and the back of the skull.
Woodpeckers' typical diet includes insects, berries, nuts, seeds and suet, as well as jelly and nectar. Their tongues span up to 4 inches in length and retreat into a sheath that wraps around the back and top of their skulls under the skin. Hummingbirds store their tongues in the same way. The tongues in some species are covered with barbs or sticky saliva to help in capturing insects. Sapsuckers have brush-like tongues that hold sap from trees.
In addition to upper and lower eyelids, all woodpeckers have a third eyelid which they can see through. The membrane moves across the eyeball to clean it and protect the eye lens from flying debris during hammering.
Toes form an X-shape, two toes facing forward and two facing backward. Most songbirds have three toes facing forward and one facing backward. This toe configuration, along with rigid/stiff tail feathers, help woodpeckers brace on trees as they drum and climb.
Woodpeckers have a distinct undulating, up-and-down flight pattern - a few rapid wing beats followed by a quick glide with wings tucked against their bodies.
Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes at the start of the breeding season, usually in late April and May. Cavities are usually slightly larger than the width of the bird. Woodpeckers tend to look for dead trees or snags that have a hard outer shell and a softer inner cavity.
I hope these fun facts add to your enjoyment of watching woodpeckers.
Ken Bunkowski and his son, Matt, are co-owners of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and look forward to sharing the joy that birds bring into their lives. This column publishes monthly in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.