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If You Were a Woodpecker

March 20, 2012

Recently,  I wrote an article that appeared in the Palm Beach Post about what it would be like to be a woodpecker. In response to that article, I heard from a school teacher who used the information in her class to introduce her students to woodpeckers. Her email follows the article.

First of all, if you’re a woodpecker, your head, eyes, beak, toes, tongue, ears, tail, and feathers – absolutely every aspect of your body – would be especially adapted to enable you to live in and obtain food from trees. Since most of your time would be spent finding food, the easiest method would be to use your sharp eyes to actually see an insect, your favorite food . If you couldn’t  see one, you could use your unique sense of “hearing”.  Woodpeckers are able to detect insect movement inside a tree through a combination of feeling and hearing while placing their beak against a trunk.  If you heard an insect, you’d use your chisel-like beak to lift a piece of the bark or hammer a hole in the tree to get at the little “bugger”.  Of course, the insect wouldn’t just sit there waiting to be grabbed. It’s going to find a safer location, and you would keep listening and pecking until you could locate it. When you did find it, your incredible long, flexible tongue, made of bone and elastic tissue, would work its way inside the tree or under the bark, and with your “pierce” de resistance with its barbed tip, stab the bug and drag it out. And amazingly, that tongue  is so long that when you retract it, it wraps completely around the inside of your skull!

All the time you’re pecking on that tree, your head is taking a real beating! As adaptation (not luck) would have it, you have very special cushioning in your head for whamming against tree trunks. Without the shock absorber that surrounds your brain, you can imagine the headache you’d suffer. Football players could use such cushioning! In addition, to keep sawdust out of your nostrils while you’re whacking away at a tree, the tiny feathers around your nostrils would act as a sawdust filter.

Keep in mind, while all this is going on,  you’d be hanging onto the side of the tree by your toenails! Your highly specialized feet – two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward (on each foot) – are enabling you to remain erect and stable throughout all the violent banging on the tree. Most birds (with 3 toes forward and 1 back) can’t land on a tree like you can. You have a special undulating method of flight, and the swooping action brings you right up against the vertical side of a tree when you land. And last but not least, you would have a special tail with two extra stiff middle feathers that serve as a prop to hold you upright against that tree while you are pecking away.

We have 8 species of woodpeckers that can be seen in many habitats in South Florida, including perhaps your yard. In your neighborhood – if you have trees – the most common you can probably see (from smallest to largest) are Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and if youhave large trees, Pileated Woodpeckers.

Downys are about 6 inches from beak-tip to tail-tip – smaller than a Cardinal, and the smallest woodpecker in North America. Since almost all woodpeckers have some black and white on them and sometimes a bit of red, you’ll have to look carefully at where these colors are to determine which woodpecker you have. Of course size is most important. It it’s smaller than a cardinal, then it’s a Downy.

In South Florida, if it’s a bit larger than a cardinal, it’s probably a Red-bellied Woodpecker, almost 9 inches long and our most common woodpecker, which occasionally visits bird feeders. Now, most beginners call these “red-headed woodpeckers”, but they’re not. A Red-headed Woodpecker has an entirely red head and is very uncommon in our area. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have some red on their heads and a blush of red on their bellies – especially if they’re males.

The really big woodpeckers that might be in your neighborhood, especially if you have large, old trees, are Pileated Woodpeckers. These guys are 16 to 19 inches long! You won’t miss them! They look mostly black, with some red on their faces, until they fly and then you see large white patches under their wings. Don’t get confused and think you’ve discovered the almost-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You haven’t. If there are any of those left at all, they are in swamps and bayous – maybe in Louisiana or North Florida.

During the winter months we occasionally see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. If you see trees with small holes in rings circling the trunks, you probably have a sapsucker around. They chisel the holes to get the sap running, which they lap up with their brush-like tongues . Also, the sap attracts insects which get stuck and provide some protein for the sapsuckers – and other birds. This practice doesn’t usually hurt the trees, and it’s fun to find a tree that shows clues that wildlife has been around.

Now that you’ve thought a bit about what it’s like to be a woodpecker, get outside and listen and find one! You’ll know when one is near – you’ll hear it whacking it’s head against the side of a tree – or a utility pole. Get a bird book, look up woodpeckers, determine the size of your woodpecker, see how much red is on it and where, look at where the black and white is, see if it’s belly is reddish, and figure out what your woodpecker is. It’s not hard, it just takes practice. And get outside!

Here’s the Fan Mail – From Mary Jane Feeley, Teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Melrose, Massachusetts:

“Dear Ann,

My mother has e-mailed you to say how very much my students enjoyed learning about woodpeckers through my reading your column to them.  I had my students search for images of woodpeckers and we were astonished at how many varieties of woodpeckers exist in the world!  I walked from group to group for at least 10 minutes as students wanted me to see “this one” and their newest favorite such as one that was spotted like a leopard.  I then read your article aloud and had my students look at the photographs again so they could observe the toes and special tail feathers of the bird.  Well, it just escalated from there.  The find of a cutaway diagram of the woodpecker’s skull was a major hit and, running a close second, was a picture of the barbed woodpecker tongue.  We just had so much fun learning about and marveling at this amazing bird.

As if all the fascinating information wasn’t enough, you gave us a wonderful example of how to write well – extremely well, so well that it seems effortless which explains, in part, why you’ve got your own column!  You showed my students how important it is to think about word choice – “whamming” comes to mind here – and how to write with your audience in mind.  Your suggesting my students pretend that they were woodpeckers caught and kept their attention.  In their minds, they were hanging onto trees by their toenails!

This week, as part of our Reading anthology, I read aloud to my class the story “Luck” by Jean Craighead George which is about the migration of a sandhill crane.  It required a map of the U.S. and a world map to show Canada and Russia (Siberia).  Ms. George wove in how the bird species was 20 million years old.  Astonishing.  I am also teaching measurement and had students hold tape measures to show the 6-foot wing span (which is described in the story as 6-foot wings – well, that started a ruckus of disbelief).  Again, photographs from the internet contributed greatly here and the students could see the bird’s “crimson crown”.

Thank you for writing such a wonderful article.”

Thank you, Mary Jane, for being such a wonderful teacher!


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  1. George Rogers permalink

    I wish I were a woodpecker, then I wouldn’t have to sit here and peck this keyboard on such a beautiful day. There’s more in your post than I knew about peckerwoods my whole life. My native plants class learned a little about Pileated Woodpeckers the other day when we saw a pair making baby peckers. Much commotion involved. “Hey look those woodpeckers are fighting.” (Perhaps not mutualy exlusive activities.) Interesting how you note the Ivorybill WP to be nearly extinct. Have you written a full column on those? A friend of mine several weeks ago who lives in rural Missouri e-mailed me that she had heard of a University of Missouri (or was it St. Louis U.?) Professor reporting an Ivorybill encounter down that way with a university class. The report seemed credible at the moment, since the Prof was an actual ornithologist or sometihng close to it, but it must be faulty (?) given that a rock solid report would generate a lot of heat. So Ann, what’s the best evidence for their existence?

    • George, you inspired me to go back to an article I wrote a couple of years ago about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. I just posted it – enjoy! And thanks for the idea!
      Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other universities do keep looking for the birds – in North Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The best evidence for their existence is that according to reports, people keep thinking they’ve seen them. We are ever hopeful – and most people don’t want to give up looking. One aspect of all this is that it brings attention to the fact that we somehow keep managing to wipe out other forms of life. I’m not sure we’ll ever learn how to “play well with others”.

      There are several good books out about the birds –
      Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, by Stephen Lyn Bales, 2010
      The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose, 2004
      In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, by Jerone Jackson, 2004
      The Grail Bird, by Tim Gallagher, 2005

  2. Kay Gates permalink

    Thanks you Ann for sharing your article on line as I missed it in the newspaper. As a retired teacher, don’t know which I enjoyed more, the whacking woodpecker info article or how the teacher used the article with her students. Keep up the good work and continue to share.

  3. sarah davis dean permalink

    Hi Ann, I loved this article, and also enjoyed reading George’s response to it. Thanks for alerting me to it. xo, Sarah

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