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Woodpeckers — and woodpecker questions — seem to increase in winter.

Last week I watched a downy woodpecker working along the limbs of our century-old American elm tree, and last winter I watched a downy woodpecker dining on the suet cake I’d set out for the birds.

Downy woodpeckers are easily confused with hairy woodpeckers. Both are white beneath and white between the black shoulders, with black wings featuring fine white spots; bold black and white stripes mark the sides of the head, with males showing a snip of red at the back of the head.

The downys, however, are more delicate than the hairys: downy woodpeckers are smaller (5.5”-6.7” long) than hairy woodpeckers (7.1”-10.2” long), with a shorter, thinner bill (downy bills are shorter than their heads are wide, hairy bills are as long as their heads are wide).

Pileated woodpeckers really catch people’s eyes — these crow-sized birds are hard to miss. Oregon’s largest woodpecker, the pileated is a mostly black bird with a white and black neck and face, and a bright red, pointed crest. Uncommon, pileated woodpeckers specialize in chiseling the trunks of large trees; they can throw down a rain of wood chips and chunks of bark in energetic pursuit of lunch. Also like most other woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers also glean insects from branches and logs, and they round out their diet with nuts, tree sap, and fruit.

Another common regional woodpecker, red-breasted sapsuckers sport a black and white body with a mostly red head and breast and, often, a yellow-washed belly. You may have noticed the evidence of their feeding habit: Sapsuckers drill lines of holes around live trees to drink the tree sap, as well as to eat the insects drawn to the ooze. We’ve had many sapsuckers feed on the apple trees in our yard; fortunately, the sapsucker’s dining habits don’t seem to do much damage to our mature, healthy trees.

Exhibiting a relatively limited color palette, most woodpeckers are black and white with red (or sometimes yellow) highlights. All woodpeckers share a characteristic undulating flight pattern of several flaps followed by a swooping glide.

Flickers break with most other woodpeckers in coloring as well as in feeding habits: these brown-patterned woodpeckers with a speckled belly and black necklace are primarily ground feeders that poke about in moss and sod for insects and other food.

Besides finding food in the wood, woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in snags or live trees. Pileated woodpeckers are known for their major excavations, particularly for their distinctive rectangular or oval nesting holes. (Other woodpeckers make round or nearly-round holes.) Woodpecker holes can become valuable nesting and den habitat for a successive variety of other animals, including owls and flying squirrels.

All woodpeckers are well-adapted to climbing trees and drilling for their quarry.  A woodpecker’s two-toes-forward-two-toes-back feet cling well to vertical tree trunks, while the stiff, pointed tail feathers prop them up. Thus securely leveraged, a woodpecker can drive its straight, pointed bill into the wood hard enough to drill or chisel into it. The extra-thick skull helps cushion the brain from the pounding.

Insects make up the bulk of the diet for all our woodpeckers; their long, barbed and sticky tongues snag the quarry and pull it out of the safety of the wood. A woodpecker tongue is longer than seems possible: The rather stiff tongue slides in and out of a sheath that stretches from the back of the throat, up and over the outside of the skull (but under the skin), all the way to the right nostril.

Woodpeckers also relish fruit in season, such as gobbling down elderberries or pecking away at apples.

Besides finding most or all of their food in wood, woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in snags or live trees. Such holes become valuable nesting and den habitat for a successive variety of other animals. Woodpeckers also peck or drum on wood or other structures to communicate with one another. In fact, woodpecker drumming can be as distinguishing as the calls.

Although at first glance our different species of woodpeckers may seem to be in stiff competition with one another, they actually fill different niches. For example, the smaller, less-shy downy woodpeckers prefer open forests, including urban areas and riparian environments. The larger, and the more-shy, hairy woodpeckers prefer dense forests and old growth forests. While both hairy and downy woodpeckers drill and probe for their quarry on tree trunks and large branches, downy woodpeckers will also feed among small branches, twigs, and leaves.

Why do people seem to see more woodpeckers in winter?

One reason is that it appears some woodpeckers to move downslope in winter — moving from the highlands to the lowlands — like various other birds, and therefore move to where there are more people to observe them.

However, I think people also tend to see more woodpeckers in winter because, as is the case with my American elm tree, the woodpeckers are easier to see with the leaves gone.

For information on how you can arrange an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027,, or Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome.

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