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Woodpeckers: Woodland Drummers
Photos & Text by R. Munguia

Woodpeckers have always marveled those who have had the chance to see them at work; for better or for worse, they know how to attract human attention.  Anyone walking through the woods will stop to look for them as soon as they hear their distinctive drumming, but for some homeowners, this drumming can be bad news.  While not always the case, a woodpecker drumming or pecking on the side of a house can be a sign or termites or wood boring beetles working their way through the wood. But they also seem to be attracted to humming sounds coming from the interior, perhaps produced by an appliance. These near-passerine birds have a unique distinction on their feet  that puts them in the order Piciformes.  They have zygodactyls feet, which means "paired toes". Most woodpeckers have a four toe arrangement in which the first and the fourth point rearward and the second and third point forward.  Woodpecker toes are long and strong with sharp curved nails used to cling to the bark of trees.

But having long toes and sharp nails is not enough.  They also need a way to  support their body in awkward positions, and that's when their tail comes in.  Woodpecker tails are designed to help these birds prop themselves when climbing or resting by means of  two stiff central feathers that are used as a third foot.  It is believed that these feathers are only molted after the two new feathers have grown enough to replace the old ones.  They also have a hard, straight and chisel-like bill well-suited for their drilling job.  Their skull is somewhat thick for a bird, and the outer membrane of the brain is harder than in other bird species, suggesting clear adaptations to absorb the shock. Now, to top off  all these amazing adaptations, woodpeckers have a unique tongue that allows them to reach deep into the drilled holes to extract wood-boring insects. Woodpeckers can also control the movement  and direction of their unusually long tongues, all possible thanks to specialized muscles and bones in the skulls known as the hyoid apparatus.

There are about  200 species of woodpeckers worldwide that range from small 3 and 1/2 inch piculets to 2 feet long Imperial Woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers have a typical plumage of blacks, whites and reds, but there are a few exceptions with greens and yellows. In North America, we have 23 species reported of these magnificent birds that range from the tiny Downy woodpecker to the now extinct  Ivory-billed woodpecker.  While most members of the woodpecker family are insectivores, there are a few that prefer fruits, sap and acorns. A woodpecker will rarely be on an strict diet. During breeding, it is not unusual to see woodpeckers feeding small reptiles and even frogs to their chicks, perhaps as a way to provide an even higher protein-based diet to promote the chicks' growth. Flickers, a type of ground woodpecker, prefer to feed on the ground on a diet mainly composed of ants, while the sapsuckers, as their name implies, prefer the sap of trees.  It's common to find insect eating woodpeckers drilling old decaying trees, while the sapsuckers will drill on live and healthy ones that can provide enough sap. 

Woodpeckers are really smart birds and have come out with interesting strategies that set them apart from any other species. Just to start, they tend to travel in pairs and rarely flock. This is just a way to avoid competition over food. The males use the drumming technique to attract females.  By knocking on metal or other man-made materials, the male extends its broadcasting capability.  Now a female  a mile away can perhaps pick up his love call. Additionally they have learned to stash acorns  on the underside of branches, perhaps to reduce losing their food to hungry squirrels that tend to walk on the top side. Woodpeckers are definitely unique among birds, as they have evolved in a much different way when compared to other birds except perhaps for the woodcreepers  with which they share their  feet adaptations and the ability to climb trees.
I have had the opportunity to observe and photograph many species of woodpeckers from around the world, and they don't stop amazing me. Every species I have met seems t o have a unique way of doing things - if I could use human qualities to describe them, I would say they are wise, funny and elegant.  Perhaps the most notable quality is their usefulness. In their efforts to ensure successful breeding, some woodpeckers may dig more than one nest cavity, leaving a vacant room for another species such  as the Carolina Wren, or a flycatcher.  Some of their unused food cache is used by other animals or perhaps fall to the ground and develop into a new tree.  Just their presence is a sign of a fairly balanced and rich ecological area. Every time they drum it's like hearing the heart of nature, a constant beat I hope never stops.

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Woodpeckers Of the World

Puerto Rican Woodpecker - Puerto Rico
Black-cheecked Woodpecker - Costa Rica
Yellow-naped Woodpecker - Asia
 
Woodpecker Facts

There are about 200 species worldwide in the woodpecker family which includes piculets and wrynecks

They're found throughout the world except in Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar
They all have zygodactyl feet (two toes forward two facing backwards) except on the three toed woodpeckers (2 forward. 1 back)
The Pileated woodpecker is the largest existing woodpecker in North America, the now extinct Ivory-billed was even larger.
Sticky saliva at the tip of their tongues allow them to pull prey from deep into the dead trees.

Some of Florida's Woodpeckers

The Red-bellied woodpecker is the most common of all species in Florida. It can be found almost anywhere in the state.
The Downy woodpecker is the smallest of all North American woodpeckers.
The Pileated woodpecker produces a loud but slow drumming sound when pecking on trees.
The Yellow-shafted Flicker is one of few species of ground woodpeckers. Note the use of the tail to prop itself at the entrance of the nest.
 

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