Swain County Extension Director
We are blessed with a wide variety of birds in our area and one commonly recognized group is the woodpeckers. We have several types of woodpeckers in western North Carolina including the Pileated, Downy, Hairy, Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. In addition, the Northern Flicker is a member of the woodpecker family commonly found here in the mountains.
Many woodpeckers are tree bark feeding birds with unique clinging feet, long tongues and specialized beaks designed to help with communicating the possession of territory to rivals and locating and accessing insects. This is done mostly by tapping and pecking noisily on tree trunks with their beaks. The woodpecker's long tongue can be darted forward to capture insects from the inner and outer bark.
A woodpecker searches surfaces of tree trunks and branches for wood boring beetles, carpenter ants, and other insects. The pecking style used for feeding is very different than territorial drumming which is done mainly in the spring.
Only a few pecks are made and then the bird explores the resulting hole with its specialized bill and tongue. This behavior continues until an insect is found or the bird is satisfied that one is not there. Then the woodpecker may hop a few inches away and peck at another place. The damage from this feeding activity often occurs in horizontal lines.
In most cases, a woodpecker prefers dead wood rather than sound wood to dig for food or excavate nest cavities. Since most trees contain some dead wood, the woodpeckers' activity doesn't necessarily mean the bird is harming the tree.
Woodpeckers also use their beaks to create larger holes for their nests, which extend 6–18 inches below the opening. These nests are lined only with wood chips and hold from 2–8 eggs. Because the nests are out of sight, they are not visible to predators and eggs do not need to be camouflaged. Cavities created by woodpeckers are also reused as nests by other birds and mammals, such as squirrels.
Not all Woodpeckers seek insects for food. A sapsucker is a woodpecker that prefers sap but will eat insects attracted to the sap. Insect eating woodpeckers are less of a problem than sap eating woodpeckers. They tend to only feed and nest in dead wood and are generally considered harmless to a tree.
Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker can constantly peck on trees and not damage its skull or brain? Well, several adaptations combine to protect the woodpecker's brain from the substantial pounding that the pecking behavior causes: it has a relatively thick skull with spongy bone to cushion the brain. Also, the bird contracts mandibular muscles just before impact, thus transmitting the impact past the brain and allowing its whole body to help absorb the shock; and its relatively small brain is less prone to concussion than other animals. So, now you know.