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Hey, What's That Sound?

The tap-tap-tap of the woodpecker is a common occurrence this time of year



There are many examples of engineering marvels in the natural world which humans have yet to replicate. One of these astonishing feats is the skill of a woodpecker.

These incredible birds slam their head into trees at up to 20 times a second—the equivalent of going from zero to 26,000 mph. At this acceleration the skull can incur over a thousand G forces. Birds of the Picidae family are highly specialized to excavate wood with their beaks, with long, "wrap around" tongues to cushion their strong but compressible skull bones.

The warp speed pounding of a wood pecker can sound like a power tool being used. - SEVILLA RHOADS
  • Sevilla Rhoads
  • The warp speed pounding of a wood pecker can sound like a power tool being used.

Their hyoid bone, a small thin bone at the base of the tongue, is elongated and extends around the front of their cranium. It serves as a kind of seatbelt. The position and structure of their body on a tree allows the woodpecker to absorb 99% of the impact strain generated by such intense hammering. Even so, their brain will heat up, which is probably why drilling is intermittent with frequent stops. They are perfectly designed for pecking and can drive people mad when their particular skill is practiced on someone's house siding.

There are six species of woodpeckers in Oregon, including flickers and sapsuckers. Northern flickers are the most common and have a unique, neon orange coloration on the undersides of their flight feathers. Flickers feed extensively on the ground, consuming ants and beetles. Three species of sapsuckers are found regularly in Oregon: the Red-Breasted, Williamson's and very occasionally a Yellow-bellied. These, true to their name, feed on a tree's sticky, sweet sap as well as insects. A sapsucker's excavation is perceived as a boon to many bird species and insects that can also utilize the nutrient-rich, viscous material flowing beneath a tree's protective bark. The four "true" woodpeckers include the large Pileated, the diminutive Downy, the Blackback and the Three-toed woodpecker. These last two often inhabit recently burned forests and, in fact, have only three toes on each foot rather than the four-toed-zygodactyl foot arrangement of most Picidae.

  • Sevilla Rhoads

Woodpeckers practice their craft for several reasons: feeding, communicating or nesting. In the late winter and early spring woodpeckers start to establish territories, announcing to other woodpeckers that their corner of the forest is taken by drumming. Drumming on a resonating surface likely confers the same signals as most sexual selection is aimed to impart: location and an indication of reproductive fitness. The louder the drumming, perhaps, the more "attractive" the bird. This means your chimney pipe or gutter with its deep resonating thrum is a wonderful find for a woodpecker establishing its territory. It may be annoying, but it is not usually damaging. Feeding damage is usually minimal unless you have a bug infestation. The local peckers are much more interested in excavating grubs from under the first few layers of tree bark than your home's siding.

A woodpecker's tongue is another of its marvels, often over a third of the bird's overall length and serving as more than just a cushion for its brain box. A Flicker's two-inch tongue is barbed at the end, made to snake into crevices and snag ants or other insects, while a Sapsuckers' is capped with short bristles that help the bird "lap" up the slowly oozing sap. It is also theorized that sapsuckers have some sort of anticoagulant in their saliva that liquifies the sap to keep it flowing.

Our amazing woodpeckers get into the most trouble when they try to be our roomies, creating the cavities in which they will lay their eggs in the eaves of someone's home. Most often these homemakers choose a dead snag tree, however, due to the elements that contribute to a successful nest site, a human home is chosen occasionally. In that case there are few things the original homeowner can do to deter an unwelcome feathered guest.

Bird abatement is a commonly requested service. Most techniques involve scaring birds away. One way is installing flagging, an erratic flapping material of some sort, often reflective, which birds are wary of. Another method is putting out effigies of local predators, such as owls or hawks. This can work well in the early stages, but sometimes birds will habituate to them as they eventually learn that there is no danger from them. Sounds can also be used with some effectiveness. Noises mimicking birds' alarm calls warning of nearby predators, especially when only motion activated, may make birds decide an area is unsuitable. Preventing birds from coming in for a landing can also work. There are various devices for this, ranging from repulsive-feeling gels to spikes on commonly occupied perches. The best bet is to simply block the area being excavated with a material they can't break through, like aluminum flashing.

It is illegal to kill the birds and it is also not very effective. If for some reason a nest site is favored, other birds will take advantage of an abandoned prime spot. Often mounting a nest box designed for cavity nesters nearby with the same aspect or position will save them the trouble of creating their own hole. If you happen to have a home that has been marked as prime territory, or you didn't notice a nest being created, do not fear. Woodpeckers have an astonishingly short incubation period. Young will hatch in as little as two weeks and start flying away from the nest within a month. Once the business of raising a family has been accomplished, the cavity hole can be easily patched with a material that will discourage them from reusing the site.

Wood-boring birds are a marvel of physics. Even if they should darken your door, or roof, we hope you appreciate their beauty and stunning adaptations.

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