DELMARVA ALMANAC

Delmarva’s Woodpeckers

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp talks about about some of our favorite forest birds, the woodpeckers.


Watch slideshow:

Downy Wood Pecker - Female Downy Wood Pecker - Male Flicker Flickers Red-headed Woodpecker Red-bellied Woodpeckers Pileated Woodpeckers Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


No hike or paddle through the Delmarva woods is complete without a woodpecker experience. These brilliant birds are easily recognizable hopping, climbing and pecking up and down the trunks of trees. Even if you don't see one, the sound of the random tapping of a woodpecker searching for food, or the rhythmic drumming used to communicate with other birds, is one of the distinctive sounds of our cool, dark Delmarva forests and swamps.

To experience the drumming of woodpeckers echoing through the forest, make a trip to the Elk Neck State Forest and Park, both located just southwest of Elkton, Maryland. The town and parks are named due to the abundance of elk that lived here years ago. The State Forest has more than 3,500 acres of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees perfect for woodpeckers and other wildlife. The park boasts nearly 2,200 acres of different habitat that includes Chesapeake marsh, white clay cliffs sloping to beaches, and mature forest.

Woodpecker drumming is only possible due to the bird's incredible physical adaptations that allow them to slam their heads into hard objects over and over without suffering from concussions.

Their skulls are thick, and they have an enlarged brain case. The spongy bones in the front of the skull are folded just behind the huge, jackhammer bill, and act as shock absorbers. Much of the force encountered at the tip of the bill when it strikes its target is reduced before it ever reaches the bird's protected brain.

Woodpeckers have thick, powerful neck muscles that allow them to hammer all day without strain. They can peck and drum up to 20 times per second, or 12,000 pecks per day.

Drumming is one way the birds communicate, and it helps them attract a mate and defend territory. They drum on objects that make a lot of noise, such as a hollow tree or metal stop sign. The sound can be heard for great distances by other woodpeckers. The pattern and tempo are distinctive, and you can learn how to identify different species of Delmarva woodpeckers just by their drumming.

You can also hear them pecking on trees when they're carving out nesting holes or searching for insect prey, but these whacks are more random than when woodpeckers are drumming to communicate.

If they find a juicy grub or wood-boring insect tucked tightly in a tree, the woodpecker's incredible tongue will extract it from its hiding spot. When not in use, the tongue is curled around the back of the head between the skull and skin.

When feeding, the woodpecker chisels a tiny hole over the insect's hideout and slips its long tongue into the crevice. The tip of the tongue is coated in sticky saliva and has barbs that point backwards towards the woodpecker's throat. The tongue quickly wraps around the prey to dislodge it, and the woodpecker gulps it down. In addition to bugs, woodpeckers also eat fruit, nuts, and seeds, and some specialize in sucking up tree sap. Woodpeckers will also feed on suet cakes or nut feeders in your backyard.

Woodpeckers also have special adaptations for vertically climbing tree trunks. While most bird feet have one toe pointing back and three pointing forward, woodpeckers have two toes pointing in each direction. This helps them cling to tree bark while pecking. Their tail bones are fused together and surrounded by thick muscle. Combined with stiff feathers, the tail acts like a woodpecker prop stand and provides extra balance.

This is Jim Rapp and you're listening to the Delmarva Almanac. We're talking about Delmarva's woodpeckers.

Most of Delmarva's seven species of woodpecker have a black and white pattern on their backs that helps them hide against tree trunks. They have a bouncy, undulating flight pattern consisting of a few rapid wing beats followed by a quick glide with the wings tucked against the body.

The smallest of our seven woodpeckers, and the smallest in the U.S., is the Downy Woodpecker. They're usually around 6 inches long, and have a black-and-white checkered color pattern. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head.

The Downy's slightly larger cousin is the Hairy Woodpecker, and the two are almost identical in color. The Hairy has a much longer bill than the Downy, and the bill is almost the same length as the bird's head.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a woodpecker that drills rows of shallow holes in tree bark to suck up the sap that emerges along with insects that may get stuck. They are mostly black and white with yellowish bellies and red foreheads. Males also have red throats.

The stunning Red-headed Woodpecker is less common than the other six Delmarva species, but can be found in dead trees along the edges of marshes and swamps. These woodpeckers have a bright crimson head, clean white body, and black and white wings.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are mistakenly called Red-Heads because of their red caps. These woodpeckers are very common on the Peninsula, and have a pale body, black-and-white checkered back, and barely any red on the belly at all.

Another common Delmarva woodpecker is the Northern Flicker. Flickers are mostly tan with a white rump patch that's easy to see when the bird is flying or perched. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are bright yellow, and the brown feathers have black spots and crescents. Flickers often feed on the ground, digging in the soil for ants and beetles with their curved bill.

The largest living woodpecker in the U.S. is the Pileated Woodpecker. At nearly 19 inches long, it is only slightly smaller than the probably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker that once lived in the southern swamps of the U.S. The Pileated Woodpecker is black with white stripes down the face and neck, and a triangular, flame-red crest that gives them a "Woody Woodpecker" appearance.

Pileated Woodpeckers forage in dead trees, and stumps and logs on the forest floor. They make large, deep rectangular openings in the wood to go after their favorite food, carpenter ants.

Pileated Woodpeckers also use their long, powerful beaks to excavate nesting cavities. A pair of Pileateds will use the hole for just one nesting season, and they'll carve out a new cavity each spring. Abandoned woodpecker cavities become nests for other birds, such as Eastern Screech-Owls and Wood Ducks. Some birds and animals will use the abandoned hole for roosting, such as swifts, bluebirds, and bats.

An old snag full of woodpecker holes will eventually become a wildlife condominium. A stately old snag, with a broken-off top and enough holes to make it look like Swiss cheese, is one of the most valuable trees in the forest. Dead trees are actually brimming with life, from the insects that feed in the rotting wood, to the woodpeckers that feed on the bugs and make nesting cavities, to the lizards and bats that hide out in the peeling bark, to the owls and wood ducks that nest in the abandoned woodpecker holes. If you own or manage a little patch of Delmarva woods, consider leaving a few dead trees around for the woodpeckers and their forest friends.