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By Laura Jones, Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Winter 2003

Ohio’s woodpeckers are real wonders of nature

CLICK ON PHOTO to see the high resolution imageHow much wood can a woodpecker peck before a woodpecker’s pecking makes it a pest? Well, the answer probably depends upon whether it’s pecking on a nearby tree or the side of your house!

As one of Ohio’s most intriguing group of birds, woodpeckers can both fascinate and frustrate us with their compulsive pecking. They peck, drum, drill and chisel for three basic reasons: to establish territory and attract mates, extract insects, and create nesting cavities.

Close to 20 species of woodpeckers live in North America and seven of those call Ohio home: the red-headed, red-bellied, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy, hairy, northern flicker, and the pileated. The most common and often seen in the Buckeye State is the small black and white downy woodpecker. Males and females look alike except the males have a spot of red on the back of their heads. The hairy woodpecker is very similar to the downy, but at nine inches in length is about 2 _ inches larger.
CLICK ON PHOTO to see the high resolution image
Woodpeckers do not sing like songbirds. But, just as each songbird’s song is unique, every woodpecker’s “peck” is too. Rhythm, duration and even the pattern of holes distinguish one woodpecker species from the next.

For instance, trees with several rows of holes drilled in a straight line often indicate the work of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. True to its name, this colorful bird with a red cap and yellow belly is after tree sap. It actually laps the sap and consumes insects entrapped in the sweet, sticky liquid.

Can you imagine pounding your head against the wall 8,000 to 10,000 times? Well, that’s the amazing number of times some researchers believe woodpeckers peck each day! Fortunately for this bird-brained species, a spongy tissue filled with air protects its intellect.

To carry out their work, these birds are equipped with highly specialized accessories: sturdy beaks, strong neck muscles, long elastic tongues, stiff tails and powerful toes. Acting as a brace, the tail supports the woodpecker while it chisels away. And, unlike other birds that have three toes forward and one back, woodpeckers have two toes forward and two toes back, helping them grip the sides of trees.

CLICK ON PHOTO to see the high resolution imageNow here’s a really cool fact about woodpeckers: they store their long tongues inside their noses. And some of those tongues are nearly four-inches in length! Attached to the right nostril, the projected split tongue curves up around the skull then is shot out the mouth to capture insects. Sticky saliva and barbs on the end of their tongues help woodpeckers glean insects deep inside trees. As an example of this dexterity, consider that a single northern flicker can eat thousands of carpenter ants in one day.

Woodpeckers do more than peck at their prey. They also bore holes in wood that will encourage insects to take up residence, thus creating a ready food supply. Talk about a clever bird!

In Ohio’s woodlands, woodpeckers are more often heard than seen. Such is the case with the pileated (pie-lee-ated), one of the state’s most distinctive woodpeckers and definitely its largest at 16 to 19 inches in length. Often referred to as the model for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, it is the only woodpecker with a crest on its head, which is a brilliant fire engine red. These shy birds prefer living among large tracts of forested land.

Primarily insect eaters, woodpeckers go where the food source exists – usually woodlots featuring some dead or decaying wood. However, if your house’s wood siding is a woodpecker’s object of desire, consider it fair warning and investigate immediately for a potential bug infestation.

Some woodpeckers, including the red-bellied, are known as ladderbacks because of the distinctive black-and-white bars on their backs. They and other of their species will drum on non-wood items for the reverberation they create. While the drumming on gutters, down spouts and vent covers can be a noisy nuisance, the action usually inflicts little damage.

Fascinating for their structural design and beneficial to our environment for the many wood-boring insects they eat, woodpeckers are true wonders of nature – whether at work in the woods or on the side our homes!


Past Outdoor Notebook Columns
For Further Information Contact:
Laura Jones
(614) 265-6811 or



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