Woodpeckers: Storytellers of the Wisconsin Forest

For some animals,

humans have embedded a story

within how we name

their species.

The simple name “woodpecker” is a starting point for how these birds spend a great deal of their time. The names of some woodpeckers, such as the Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, probably don’t need much further explanation. But the four other Wisconsin woodpeckers found at Schlitz Audubon have marvelous stories within their names. The Downy Woodpecker has softer feathers than those of a bird that possesses a rougher tactile sensation, the so named Hairy Woodpecker. In Latin, the word pileated translates to cap, and the Pileated Woodpecker wears a brilliant red atop its head. The Northern Flicker has told us its name, as one of its calls sounds similar to, “Flick-a, Flick-a, Flick a…”

But perhaps the most incredible story is told by woodpeckers themselves, when we hear them echoing through the forest. Woodpeckers peck on trees for three main reasons. The first reason is called drumming, which somewhat takes the place of why male songbirds “sing” – to establish a territory, exclusive of other males of its species. This rapid and loud sound is distinct to woodpeckers. These sounds can also serve the alternate purpose of attracting females, but not always. Secondly, they peck to find insect larvae to eat beneath bark. How do they know which trees to peck? Woodpeckers can hear the insects moving beneath the bark.

The third reason woodpeckers peck is to excavate a new cavity nest. When doing this they pack the most punch into their peck. Woodpeckers possess zygodactyl feet, which means they have four toes; two pointing forward and two pointing backward. With this toe arrangement, they’re able to climb up and down and cling to the bark of a tree for long periods of time while drumming or pecking. Some woodpeckers then use their excavated wood chips to create bedding inside their homes. A theory for this behavior is that woodpeckers may clean up their construction sawdust to disguise their location from predators.

Woodpeckers with the most curved beaks typically do the least drumming, as evidenced by the Northern Flicker, which is more of a ground foraging bird that dines on ants. All woodpeckers eat their preferred insects, then supplement diets with nuts and berries, as well as their less preferred insects.

Woodpeckers possess four main adaptations that allow them to spend their life pecking away without incurring physical trauma. Most importantly, woodpeckers possess a hyoid, which is a spongy bone that helps to distribute the force throughout their skull. They have  a barbed tongue that is so long it wraps around their skull – up to five inches long. If our tongues were proportionate to that of a woodpecker, human tongues would be nearly as long as we are tall! While hard, their beak also has elastic and shock absorbent qualities. In addition, their brains are tightly packed inside their skulls, with minimal cerebrospinal fluid to transmit energy.

In the animal kingdom, often times one can gauge the degree of involvement the male has in rearing the offspring by how colorful or ostentatious males are when compared with their female counterpart. The more similar the sexes of animals look in appearance, the more involvement males often have in the rearing of offspring. With certain woodpeckers, the only indication of sex is that males have a small red marking, and the males of those species are typically more involved in the early lives of their offspring. Males that diverge toward eye-catching colors are typically less involved. This bright coloring makes them more alluring to females, but also more vulnerable to predation.

As woodpeckers make their way through the forest, they have a unique style of flying. You can spot a woodpecker in flight by the way they undulate up and down as they beat their wings a few short times, then tuck them in against their body briefly before continuing to beat their wings. Woodpecker wings are specially adapted to fly in and out of densely packed forests.

One of the recent stories

told by woodpeckers in our region

is that of the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle (EAB).

Woodpeckers fleck away at ash tree bark to feed on the beetle larvae beneath the bark. This flecking by woodpeckers often provides the first indication that a tree is infested with EAB. When it comes to EAB, woodpeckers are the town crier. In Spring 2016, they told us EAB was affecting our ash trees. Over the next few years, while EAB plagues ash trees, we will likely see a spike in woodpecker populations.

It may seem counterintuitive, but strategically leaving dead ash trees standing will provide homes for innumerable plants, animals, and fungi. Decaying ash trees provide cavity nest construction sites. Woodpeckers excavate a new nest every year, and dozens of animals will take advantage of last year’s real estate. Locations where dead and dying trees pose no threat to hikers on trails, roads, or built structures, Center staff will leave trees to decay naturally.

At Schlitz Audubon, 35% of our existing tree canopy is ash, and EAB accelerates our efforts to diversify our tree community. We have a dynamic Conservation Plan to best support native and migratory wildlife throughout these 185 acres, and we are evolving to cope with the realities presented by EAB. We are intentionally transitioning much of the Center’s land into Oak Savanna habitat in the wake of EAB.

Prior to statehood, Oak Savannas covered about one fifth of what became Wisconsin. Presently, less than one tenth of one percent of that plant community still exists in Wisconsin. Oak Savanna habitat is so rare that it is listed as Globally Imperiled and just four small remnant Oak Savannas exist in Milwaukee County. Many woodpecker species prefer Oak Savanna for their habitat. As we gradually plant oak trees throughout the prairies and ash forests of yesterday, we can look forward to Red-headed Woodpeckers and many other animals that will one day call Schlitz Audubon their home.

Throughout the generally less flashy palette of winter, woodpeckers provide a subtle dash of color to the landscape. Amidst freshly fallen snow, they continue to talk about the forest to anyone that takes the time to enjoy their stories.


Written by Ed Makowski, Schlitz Audubon Communications Specialist, with contributions by Don Quintenz, Marc White, and Zoe Finney