Woodpeckers of winter

Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean birds are absent. Winter is one of the best times to see species unobscured by summer foliage.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pam Laing, Okanagan birder

Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean birds are absent. Winter is one of the best times to see species unobscured by summer foliage. Woodpeckers are a case in point.

At only 17 centimetres, the Downy Woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker. Dainty, and with a short pointed beak with a downy tuft at its base, this bird has a white streak down the middle of its back and white spots on its black wings. Males have a red patch on the back of the head. The underside is a plain puffy white.

Downy Woodpeckers forage for food on small trees in mixed or deciduous woodland looking for any insects they can find in the crevices but also taking the occasional seed or sap. They sometimes feed on mulleins or other weedy stalks.

Very similar, but larger and with a longer beak, is the Hairy Woodpecker. This bird is about 23 to 24 cm in size; otherwise the markings are like those of the Downy Woodpecker. Hairy Woodpeckers are also found in mixed woodlands, usually in more mature, larger trees and they don’t feed on weeds. They are commoner at higher elevations than the Downy and their diet consists mainly of insects and occasional small nuts.

Our largest woodpecker is abundant year-round across Canada and much of the eastern US. At 42 cm, Pileated Woodpeckers are long-necked, broad-winged and long-tailed with a prominent red crest. Males have a red malar (or must ache) and females have a black one. They rove through mixed woodlands at all elevations and have a more varied diet than their smaller relatives due to their larger size.

Woodpecker tongues are uniquely adapted to extract their food from deep cracks in bark. They are exceptionally long, and when retracted wrap around inside the bird’s skull. The tips of their tongues are barbed and the tongue is also coated in sticky saliva to help fix their insect prey in place.

Why don’t woodpeckers get headaches when they spend so much time hammering into tree bark? Scientists have determined that woodpeckers have skulls like ‘internal bike helmets’. The birds have a special bone called a hyoid bone that wraps all the way round a woodpecker’s skull, and prevents movement of the soft brain matter inside. Woodpeckers have very strong neck muscles which help cushion any impact. They have a thick inner eyelid which closes just before impact to protect the eyes from any flying debris.

Next time you hear or see a woodpecker banging its head against a tree, you’ll appreciate all the adaptations that nature has provided to ensure the species’ health and survival.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Penticton may soon allow drinking alcohol in some public places

Trying to inconspicuously drink on the beach could become a thing of the past

Dementia intensifies loneliness and loss for seniors in pandemic, says caregiver

Seniors care expert says patience and sharing keys to helping those with dementia cope through virus

No injuries in Penticton Indian Band structure fire

The structure, which sustained significant damage, was boarded up and seemingly vacant

B.C. legislature coming back June 22 as COVID-19 emergency hits record

Pandemic restrictions now longer than 2017 wildfire emergency

Central Okanagan schools ready to welcome students back

Students are set to go back to school next Monday, June 1

Houseboat company partly owned by Shuswap MLA withdraws controversial ad

The ad welcomed houseboaters from other provinces, contradicting anti COVID-19 measures.

Squabble between campers in North Shuswap leads to bear spraying

An argument over late night partying escalated into a fight which led to one person being sprayed

B.C.’s essential grocery, hardware store employees should get pandemic pay: retail group

Only B.C.’s social, health and corrections workers are eligible for top-ups

Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto vying to be NHL hubs, but there’s a catch

The NHL unveiled a return-to-play plan that would feature 24 teams

B.C. sees 9 new COVID-19 cases, one death as officials watch for new cases amid Phase Two

Number of confirmed active cases is at 244, with 37 people in hospital

VIDEO: Flowers stolen from Vernon distillery

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery captured surveillance footage of the thief in a black car

Fundraiser launched for North Okanagan drive-in

Vernon resident seeks to raise $20K to save Starlight Drive-In

Most Read