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Nature Notes: The Woodpecker 

Posted on March 23, 2016


by Katrina Froese, Education Coordinator
Woodpeckers are a common site on the trails here at FortWhyte Alive. If you don't happen to spot one, you can also look for evidence of a woodpecker’s work by looking for holes, small to large, in dead or dying trees. And, if all else fails, you can always listen for evidence of woodpeckers! Here are a few things you may not already know about woodpeckers.

What species are found in Manitoba?

Woodpeckers are intelligent, determined hunters of bugs under bark, making them among the best of winter survivors. There are many types of woodpeckers in Manitoba; the three that spend the winter are the sparrow-sized downy, robin-sized hairy and crow-sized pileated woodpecker. In spring, Northern flickers, which feed on soil insects, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which drill holes in trees and drink sap, will be returning from their migration. There are other less common species as well, bringing our province’s total to eight different species.

Is it a boy or a girl?

You can usually pick out a male woodpecker by looking for a bright red patch on the back of the head. The exceptions? Species with red-capped females include pileated woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and Northern flickers. But look below the chin in these species for a red or black marking that only males possess.

How come woodpeckers don’t get concussions?

The force of a hammering beak exerts on the bird’s skull is equivalent to 10 times the impact that would kill a human! Strong neck muscles, a sliding bone structure and reduced space in the cranium all play a role in protecting the woodpecker’s brain.

How do they eat?

Woodpeckers have really long tongues, up to three times longer than their bill. The tongue is extended, sometimes using muscles attached to a complex of bones that extend around the back and over top of the skull to insert near the eye socket or even on a nostril! Barbs on the end keep prey from slipping off as the tongue moves back into the mouth.

What's all that racket?

But woodpeckers don’t just peck to find food; males also drum to set up a nesting territory. Sometimes, they will find a very resonant hollow tree or even a metal plate on a post, and create quite the racket! Drumming rhythm is species specific. Once they are paired up, woodpeckers work together to peck out a nest cavity in which to raise their young.

Spring is a great time to hit the trails at FortWhyte Alive with a pair of binoculars. Next time you're here, ask one of our interpreters for advice on where best to go bird watching, or join us for the spring installment of our popular Birding and Breakfast series, which kicks off April 20.