Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

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

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.

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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

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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