Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley
Mississippi River at Pakenham

Dan Schneider

May 2012

“World of Woodpeckers” presented by Dan Schneider, Senior Interpreter, Grand River Conservation Authority

Woodpeckers superbly adapted insect hunters and wood home builders: a lecture report by Eugene Fytche

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 natural history lecture series continued recently in Almonte. Members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) and the public enjoyed a rare insight into the “World of Woodpeckers” during a presentation at MVFN’s Annual Spring Gathering Banquet and AGM. The guest speaker was Dan Schneider, Senior Interpreter of the Grand River Conservation Authority. Although describing himself as a generalist, Schneider revealed a profound knowledge of woodpeckers, and kept his audience fascinated by his description of the variety of species of the woodpecker family (Picidae) and their remarkable adaptations. “Woodpeckers are best at exploiting the surface of trees. If you are an insect, you cannot hide from them!” said Schneider.

A map of the global distribution of the over 300 species of woodpeckers showed that there are species on all continents with the exception of Australia including New Zealand. By some quirk of nature, although they are found in Africa, there are none on the Island of Madagascar. The family is divided into four main groups: the piculets, found mainly in the tropical regions, the wrynecks found mainly in Africa (with the peculiar characteristic that they, like owls, can turn their head through nearly 180 degrees), and the sapsuckers in North America, along with woodpeckers as we know them. Nine species of woodpecker are found in Ontario. Most have a peculiar ‘zygodactyl’ arrangement of toes (with sharp, curved claws), two forward and two back (on each foot) so that they can grip the trunk of a tree while bracing themselves with specialized stiff tail feathers. Although Mr. Schneider digressed to tell us some interesting traits of the other groups, he sensed that his listeners were most interested in his insights into the North American birds, and produced many superb slides of both the better known species and species unfamiliar to the audience.

He explained that, of the largest woodpeckers ever found in North American, the Imperial Woodpecker and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker are now extinct (although there are extremely rare US sightings of the Ivory Billed). So a familiar local bird, the Pileated Woodpecker, now has the distinction of being the largest of our woodpeckers, and sightings and its distinctive loud repetitive calls are frequently enjoyed here.

The Pileated (or crested) Woodpecker might also be called the Condominium Developer of the Woods. It creates prodigious holes in both live and dead trees, and is a cavity nester, needing a cavity two feet deep (which can take up to a month to excavate), usually in dead tree stumps, to lay its eggs and raise its young. Its cavities throughout the forest become home to a wide range of plants and animals. The Wood Duck and the Flying Squirrels are frequent tenants. As food for humans, Audubon reported, that the Pileated Woodpecker tasted “bad”! First Nations people in America hunted the birds for food and used the crest feathers for decoration.

The most common local species of woodpeckers, the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker, are hard to tell apart when seen separately; when together there is no problem since the Hairy Woodpecker is twice the size of the Downy which is about the size of a Chickadee. One thing to remember is that the smaller Downy has a small nail-sized bill. Other characteristics by which we can distinguish them: the Downy has black bars on its tail, and the male has a red spot on the back of its head. The Hairy has a much bigger beak, white outer tail feathers and the male has a red spot on his head. Both range from the Gulf of Mexico to Northern Canada. They feed on insects that they can hear in the tree trunks, but are partial to suet and sunflower seeds from feeders.

The impact of the straight bills of woodpeckers striking sound wood is of the order of 1200 g’s, and the birds’ well-being is dependent on hitting the wood straight on. Otherwise the physical defense against the impact, given by the peculiar arrangement of cushioning muscles, would not be effective. The brain in particular is well cushioned by muscles against the shocks. The ‘tool’ used by woodpeckers for extracting the ants, worms and insects that they hear in the trees is an extremely long tongue stored back over the skull and anchored behind the nostril. This amazing arrangement is unique to woodpeckers.

Northern Flickers on the other hand do not have straight bills, and tend to feed on ants on the ground. There are several morphs, all having long sticky tongues used to trap the ants. One flicker was found with over 5000 ants in its stomach. Schneider said they are so specialized that they really are filling the ecological niche of an anteater. They also catch insects in the air, eat fruit, and will visit feeders.

Another type of woodpecker, the Sapsucker, drills parallel lines of holes in trees to drink sap, but also catches insects in the air or on the ground. They are also cavity nesters. The drilling of trees, especially sugar maple, causes wells of sap in spring and provides a sugary food essential to hummingbirds and other animals when none else is available. Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers found in Ontario are an important bird. Schneider considers them a ‘double keystone species.’ A keystone species is one whose existence makes it possible for other species to inhabit an area. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be considered a double keystone species because not only does it make cavities in trees creating habitat for other species, but the sap wells it makes provide essential food for hummingbirds and others.

Schneider described other species of woodpecker, including the ones with three toes instead of four, and obviously would have broadened our knowledge much further if time permitted. However, he had run out of time. He did mention that, interestingly, one of the three-toed woodpeckers, i.e. the Black-Backed Woodpecker is usually very unafraid of people. It favors burnt out areas of the forest. The American Three-Toed Woodpecker is the other three-toed woodpecker in Ontario. The well-named Red-Headed Woodpecker is rarer in the past 20 years during which a 60% decline has been noted. The last of the nine Ontario species mentioned, the poorly named Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Schneider noted, seems to be moving north, presumably as the climate warms.

Our speaker subsequently responded to a number of questions, among them “Why do woodpeckers peck on steel roofs.” The answer: to make more noise, marking territory and attracting a mate. Schneider was given a rousing round of applause by the audience.

Photo 2 Woodpecker lecture (1024x768)

Following a short Annual General Meeting and fabulous buffet dinner prepared by Almonte Civitan Club volunteers, the audience sits back to enjoy Dan Schneider’s World of Woodpeckers presentation. Photo Pauline Donaldson

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earlier in the evening, Al Potvin had been presented with an MVFN Champion for Nature Award for his role in the production of a large number of bluebird boxes for MVFN’s habitat creation program. Speaker Dan Schneider referred to this during his woodpecker presentation, stating that Al, in making the boxes, occupied the ecological niche of a woodpecker! Photo Pauline Donaldson

 

MVFN Spring Banquet Celebrates the ‘World of Woodpeckers’

By Cathy Keddy, MVFN Program Chair

NOTE: Tickets for ‘World of Woodpeckers’ at MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2012 banquet evening must be purchased in advance by Friday, May 11. Tickets are $30 and will be available at the following locations:

Almonte: Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.) 
Carleton Place: Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.)
Lanark: Lanark Living Realty (George St.)
Pakenham: Don’s Meat Market (Main St.)
Perth: The Office (Wilson St. E.)

Tickets may also be reserved through MVFN’s Brenda Boyd (613) 256-2706,  and  picked up and paid for at the door. We ask that all those reserving tickets please commit to picking them up as MVFN must pay banquet costs for all reserved tickets!

 Above: This painting by John James Audubon, 1785-1851) shows a family
 of pileated woodpeckers. These are the largest woodpeckers in the forests of Lanark County.

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will hold their third annual Spring Gathering banquet May 17. The evening will feature a keynote presentation—World of Woodpeckers—by Dan Schneider, biologist, writer and senior interpreter with the Grand River Conservation Authority.

The world of woodpeckers is indeed large. But, as Woody Woodpecker would say, “ah-ha-ha—ha—ha!” MVFN’s Spring Gathering presentation will be limited to avian creatures with bills for tree drilling and drumming, and long sticky tongues for extracting food, but will not cover the British rugby team, or Woodpeckers from Space!

There are over 200 species in the woodpecker family, the Picidae. Spread around the globe, they include four main groups: piculets, wrynecks, sapsuckers, and true woodpeckers. Interestingly, though, none is found in Australia, New Zealand, or Madagascar. Why? Woodpeckers are uniquely specialized for their wood hammering habits. They hammer on trees at a rate of 15 to 20 times per second—a rate of fire nearly twice as fast as a sub-machine gun. Not only that, their brains are subjected to deceleration impact forces of up to 1500 g (g = force of gravity) with each blow. Consider that a football player would receive concussion injuries from a force only 1/100 as strong, survivable car crashes rarely exceed 100 g, and airplane black boxes are designed to survive only about 1,000 g! The design of woodpecker’s heads is inspiring the development of new shock-absorbing systems for electronics and humans.

There are many things about woodpeckers that bear further investigation beyond why they don’t end up with extreme headaches from hitting their heads against trees or blindness from the flying wood chips. For example, since woodpeckers’ bills are not very long, how do they fit their much longer tongues inside them? And what about their their zygodactyl feet?

MVFN invites you to Spring Gathering 2012 to expand your appreciation for this novel ornithological assembly beyond downy, hairy and pileated and to celebrate spring with a delicious banquet at a gathering with others who care about nature. Dan will share his love for these magnificent avian creatures and tell us more about their distinctive features, ecology, and conservation. He will give us a global tour, a continental perspectve, and tell us about species that live around us.

MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2012 will take place Thursday May 17, 2012 at Almonte Civitan Community Hall, 500 Almonte St. (just west of Highway 29), Almonte. The reception will begin at 6:00 pm, and at 6:45 the banquet followed by the presentation will take place. Tickets ($30), which must be purchased in advance by Friday, May 11, will be available in Almonte at Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.), in Carleton Place at Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.), in Lanark at Lanark Living Realty (George St.), in Pakenham at Don’s Meat Market (Main St.) and in Perth at The Office (Wilson St. E.). Please contact MVFN’s Brenda Boyd at (613) 256- 2706 for further information.

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FULL-SIZED  CALENDAR WITH DETAILS

MVFN natural history talks:  7:30 pm on third Thursdays of Jan, Feb, March, April,  Sept, Oct, and Nov at Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St. Almonte ON. All welcome! Non-members $5. 

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