Archive for Sunday, January 16, 2011

Garden Calendar: Better know a woodpecker

January 16, 2011, 12:04 a.m. Updated January 16, 2011, 12:04 a.m.

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Ever wonder why woodpeckers peck? Or if the holes the birds chisel cause any real harm?

To be honest, I had never thought much about woodpeckers until asked these questions. Although the answers on the birds’ behavior are a little complicated, I am now fascinated with the 13 species of woodpeckers that occur in Kansas.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a creature seen in the summertime.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a creature seen in the summertime.

First, the pecking: Scientists say woodpeckers are the only creature other than man that produces sound with something other than a part of its body. Woodpeckers use their sturdy bills and strong neck muscles to peck and drum on trees, utility poles, and other structures.

Pecking and drumming are actually two different actions for woodpeckers. Drumming is the rat-a-tat-tat, for which the birds may be best known.  Scientists believe woodpeckers drum to claim their territory, to attract mates, and to locate food. When the birds tap on trees, they listen for insects moving under the tree’s bark, then drill holes where they hear activity.

Pecking or drilling are mostly used to eat. Most woodpeckers eat insect larvae, spiders and ants. Some woodpeckers, known as sapsuckers, peck rows of small holes in trees to eat sap and insects that are attracted to the sap. Of the three species of sapsuckers found in Kansas, only the yellow-bellied sapsucker is somewhat common. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers typically reside in Kansas from October to April.  

Woodpeckers also drill holes in trees for nesting and roosting.   

Whether woodpeckers’ holes are damaging depends on what they peck. When woodpeckers drill holes in trees, it leaves a wound that can be an entry point for insects and disease. Trees are wounded similarly by pruning, storm damage, insect entry and exit holes, and insect egg-laying activity.

If woodpeckers seem particularly active on a specific tree in your yard, it could indicate an insect problem. Insect borer larvae can damage the cambium (the living part of the tree just below the bark) and cause substantial problems over time.

Sapsuckers may be attracted to particular trees because they produce a large amount of sap in the spring.  Loss of sap itself is probably not harmful to the tree but again the holes create entry points for pathogens.

Occasionally, woodpeckers peck on houses, siding, wooden structures, gutters, flashing, etc. If woodpeckers are drilling or pecking on a structure that is an issue, prompt attention is the most important. They can usually be deterred from pecking on structures with the use of visual repellents. Experts recommend strips of aluminum foil, handheld windmills, falcon silhouette mobiles and magnifying mirrors.

Although the red-headed woodpecker may be the most recognized, it is usually only a summer resident in Kansas. Northern flickers and yellow-shafted flickers are considered the most common year-round woodpecker residents in the eastern part of the state. Hairy and downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers are also common. Red-shafted flickers inhabit this area in the winter. The rest are only occasional visitors.

The most interesting, albeit bizarre thing I learned: Woodpeckers’ nostrils have special coarse feathers that filter out the wood dust as they drill.

––Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. She can be reached at 843-7058.

Comments

triplegoddess13 4 years, 4 months ago

"Scientists say woodpeckers are the only creature other than man that produces sound with something other than a part of its body. Woodpeckers use their sturdy bills and strong neck muscles to peck and drum on trees, utility poles, and other structures."

Um, isn't the bill and neck part of the bird's body or did I miss some other tool that these birds use? Usually don't see too many of them with hammers flying around the neighborhood.

sourpuss 4 years, 4 months ago

I think what she meant, although was not entirely clear in her language, was that the sound associated with woodpeckers is made by another object - the tree, steel flashing, etc., and not the woodpecker itself with a voice box, membrane, etc. Examples: dogs bark, crickets chirp. The "rat-a-tat-tat" that woodpeckers "make" is actually made by sound resonance from the tree itself, not the bird's bills, just as the sound of a drum is, technically, made by the drum, not the stick that is hitting it. The bills cause the sound, but the sound is produced by the tree.

blindrabbit 4 years, 4 months ago

Has anybody seen a pileated woodpecker around here; I though I saw one last year!! Big bird, little smaller than a crow.

riverdrifter 4 years, 4 months ago

Yep, they're here but are not common. I see them every now and then in the Beidenthal and Rice biological preserves north of Baldwin.

John Kyle 4 years, 4 months ago

I'm worried about my maple tree. In November I saw four flickers working it and minutes later a brown creaper wound his way up. Must be bug infested.

blindrabbit 4 years, 4 months ago

Sugar maple trees are apparently under more stress here during the last few years, probably due to less rain and higher summer temperatures. We are on the Western edge of their natural range. I notice those in Baldwin seem to be less healthy than prior years. I've have heard that the Caddo Sugar Maple is a good replacement; they are native to SW Oklahoma and are more heat and drought tolerant. They are hard to find however!!

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