We could learn a lot from a woodpecker. Here are just a few lessons.
Work hard to achieve your goals. Today’s column is inspired by a pileated woodpecker that has taken a shine to a hemlock just beyond my garage. He has returned to that tree repeatedly, hammering the snot out of it. There are over 60 holes in the tree. It’s hard to say whether there’s something delicious in there, or if he’s demonstrating his hole-drilling skills to impress a lady. I suspect the latter. Woodpeckers pair up early.
Get along with others. Basically, most woodpecker species eat the same food, mostly insects, primarily wood-boring beetles and larvae, ants, moths and an occasional spider or two. Woodpeckers should be competitors with each other, yet they all seem to get along just fine. I see hairy and downy woodpeckers together on the same branch, sometimes near a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Up in the north woods, I see rare black-backed woodpeckers sharing trees with hairy woodpeckers. I see black-backs sharing trees with the even rarer American three-toed woodpecker. I don’t recall ever seeing interspecies squabbling.
Speak when you have something to say. Woodpeckers avoid conflict by calling and drumming a lot, letting each other know where they are, especially during mating season. They even call when they are approaching my backyard feeders. Thus, they avoid accidentally wandering into territorial disputes.
Know when to be quiet. A few years ago, I was near Nesowadnehunk Lake west of Baxter State Park, watching a rare American three-toed woodpecker. Suddenly, I saw a Cooper’s hawk approaching. So did the woodpecker. We both had the same thought: “Uh-oh.” Woodpeckers are neither fast nor agile flyers. They cannot outrace a speedy raptor. My bird did not even think about trying to flee. He pressed against the bark and froze, silently. He remained that way for 15 minutes. By then, danger was long gone. He returned to feeding.
Dress sensibly. Most woodpeckers embrace the “freeze against the bark” defense strategy. Accordingly, they sport bark-like plumage patterns. How many times have you heard a woodpecker tapping in the tree above your head, but couldn’t quickly lay eyes on it? Last year, I encountered a downy woodpecker under threat from an unseen predator. It was pressed against the bark of a birch tree. Suddenly, the black-and-white woodpecker pattern made sense. The bird virtually disappeared right in front of my eyes. That back coloration pattern is common to three woodpecker species in the east, and many more in the western states.
Black-backed woodpeckers have black backs – pitch black, the charcoal color of burnt trees. It figures because they are specialists in areas of disturbed spruce forest, particularly burn areas. Pressed against a tree, the black back blends right in. American three-toed woodpeckers are very similar, except that they have a white area bisecting the black. This camouflage pattern is similar to the other woodpeckers that hide against bark.
Respect women. The pileated woodpecker — Maine’s largest species of woodpecker — is too big for most raptors to hunt. Three woodland hawks prey on other birds: sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and northern goshawks. Sharp-shinned hawks are roughly the size of blue jays — too small to tangle with a pileated woodpecker. Cooper’s hawks are roughly crow-size — about the same size as a pileated woodpecker. While a male Cooper’s hawk will be tempted to ambush a pileated woodpecker, his odds of success aren’t great. However, females are larger than males in most hawk species. It’s the larger female Cooper’s hawk that poses the bigger threat. Unfortunately for pileated woodpeckers, both genders of the burly northern goshawk can take a woodpecker with little effort. Hide.
Don’t be a picky eater. While woodpeckers dine primarily on insect life, they’re not above supplementing their diets when necessary. They like backyard suet, will chow down on sunflower seeds as needed and will eat berries.
There are eight species of woodpecker nesting in Maine, including the red-bellied woodpeckers that have recently moved north. Only two woodpecker species are forced to migrate during the cold weather months. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers earned the name due to their practice of drilling honeycomb patterns of holes into trees. When sap oozes out, insects become stuck, making them easy pickings for sapsuckers. In winter, sap doesn’t ooze. Sapsuckers leave. Northern flickers dine on ants more than the other woodpeckers do. They often feed on the ground. In winter, no ants. Flickers leave.
Of course, some woodpecker lessons are best left untried. I’d suggest not banging your head against a tree.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.