For the Birds Radio Program: Woodpeckers

Original Air Date: March 3, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about the bird whose skull helped design football helmets. 3:34

Audio missing


(Recording Glenn Miller–Woody Woodpecker)

What do you mean when you say bird? If you show most people a picture of a warbler or an oriole, they’ll instantly label it a Bird. But if you show them a picture of a Mallard, they’re more likely to call it a duck. Geese, swans, eagles, owls, and herons are every bit as much birds as robins and sparrows, but people always identify them more specifically.

Woodpeckers are another group people seldom refer to merely as birds. They’re so easy to recognize by their posture, their long, strong beak, and their habit of sitting on tree trunks that even the most urbane person would recognize one as a woodpecker–from the tiny downy woodpecker to the huge one atop a Macy’s parade float with deformed feet and wings, known as Woody Woodpecker.

Woodpeckers are a fairly homogenous group as far as birds go. Most of them have black and white plumage–the only exception in the Northland is the flicker, which is mostly brown. The sexes of all our woodpeckers can be determined by markings on the head–usually males have some red or yellow. In the case of the flicker, the adult female lacks a mustache mark which is present on males and all juveniles. Pileateds can be told by a mustache mark, too–it’s red on males and black on females.

Woodpeckers all have massive skulls–at least compared to other birds–and their brains are encased with strong membranes. Of course, you’d need that kind of protection, too, if you spent your days slamming your face into trees. Woodpecker nostrils are covered by bristle-like feathers to keep saw dust out, and they have zygodactylous feet, which have only two toes facing forward, and two toes behind for extra support when perched vertically like parrots and Walt Disney songbirds. The only exceptions are the three-toed woodpeckers, which are missing the hind toe altogether–one of the front toes is reversible for those times when the bird needs more support.

Woodpeckers aren’t songbirds. In order for them to attract mates and defend their territories, they drum loudly on a resonant tree or gutter.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker)

Most woodpeckers lead solitary lives. Ornithologist Joel Carl Welty said “In certain woodpecker species even the members of a mated pair seem to be ‘on a wartime footing,’ bickering and avoiding each other as much as possible and apparently resenting the fact that a second bird is necessary for reproduction.” There are many documented cases of woodpeckers, including supposedly sweet little downies, hammering their mates’ heads wide open. Although this kind of behavior is probably even more frequent among humans than woodpeckers, it’s still pretty disturbing.

Except for the few individual woodpeckers that do damage to houses and telephone poles, the family is economically much more beneficial than harmful to man’s economic interests, curbing the spread of wood-boring beetles and carpenter ants. And there’re few sights more thrilling than a pileated woodpecker working on a tree at close range.