Ontario’s Woodpeckers

Field Trip ON Nature

by Dan Schneider and Peter Pautler

 

A t a press conference in Washington D.C. last April, the world learned that the ivory-billed woodpecker lives.This charismatic bird is not, to our amazement, extinct after all. It’s hard to say whether the startling news sparked renewed interest in woodpeckers, but unquestionably bird watching in general continues to grow in popularity, and woodpeckers are a particularly fascinating species.

Ontario has nine species of woodpeckers, one of which, the red-headed woodpecker, is listed by the Ontario Ministry of

Natural Resources and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as a species of special concern. All nine species are members of the Picidae family – the “true”woodpeckers, meaning hole nesters that excavate their own cavities.They are jaunty birds of upright posture, with sharp pointed bills, short legs, long stiff tails and boldly patterned feathers of black and white or brown, grey and black, with patches of red and yellow highlights.

As their name suggests, woodpeckers are renowned for “pecking” wood. They can strike trees up to 300 times a minute and as many as 8,000 to 12,000 times a day. Excavating nesting holes, foraging for insect larvae, “drumming” on resonant, hollow branches as part of their springtime mating ritual, woodpeckers are well adapted to a life of hammering on wood.

They possess straight broad-based bills with slightly flattened tips. Strong muscles located at the base of the beak and on the neck not only supply the jack-hammer power needed for the beak to penetrate hard wood, but also hold the beak steady and absorb a portion of the shock. Folds of bone on the front of the skull protrude over the upper mandible of the bill to prevent the beak from jarring back into the  skull. Because of the rounded, broad shape of the skull and the fact that at the moment of impact, the beak is perpendicular to the tree, the bulk of the deceleration shock is dissipated along a plane below and away from the brain.Tufts of feathers in the nostrils prevent sawdust from entering the bird’s nasal passages and, for further protection, woodpeckers close their eyes when pecking.

To maintain its grip on a tree trunk while pecking at such remarkable speed, a woodpecker has feet with sharp, curved nails that are zygodactyl (their feet have two toes forward, two back, except for the two Ontario species of three-toed woodpeckers). Their stiff tail feathers, called retrices, serve as a prop, with the central pair of feathers being the longest and broadest. The tail feathers are curved forward, increasing the area of contact and support when pressed against a tree.

The woodpecker’s tongue is extremely extensible, barbed at the tip and coated with extra-sticky saliva, allowing the bird to capture insect prey. Woodpeckers are capable of extending their tongues well beyond the tip of the beak – four to 13 centimetres depending on the size of the species. When retracted, the lengthy tongue wraps around the back and over the top of the skull to the front where it is anchored in the right nostril or, as in the case of the downy woodpecker, around the right eye socket. The extensible tongue allows woodpeckers to probe insect tunnels for hidden prey. Northern flickers, which feed mostly on the ground, use their tongue to reach deep into ant colonies.

Sapsuckers, whose tongues have stiff hairs instead of barbs, lap up sap and the small insects attracted to the sweet liquid.

Woodpeckers sometimes dine on carcasses, pecking away at cartilage, fat and bone to obtain calcium. Red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers have been known to pounce on small mammals, killing them with their beaks and tearing off bite-sized morsels.With such variety in their diets, Ontario’s woodpeckers are non-migratory for the most part, with the exception of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern flicker and red-headed woodpecker.

Most woodpecker species carve out a new nesting cavity each spring. Bats, squirrels, mice and other small mammals are quick to take up residence in the abandoned holes, as are birds such as blackcapped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens. Woodpecker cavities enlarge as they rot, making room for larger species such as raccoons or wood ducks to move in. Superbly adapted to their unique ecological niche, woodpeckers are critical to the enrichment of the forest ecosystem.

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Comments

14 Comments on "Ontario’s Woodpeckers"

  1. Steve Almeida on Mon, 27th Feb 2012 11:10 pm 

    To whom it may concern,

    I’m 100% sure I have seen the Ivory Billed Woodpecker on more than 1 occasion on a property that I own close to the Township of Russell. This Woodpecker is very large & I not easy to mistake with any other species. I was not aware that it was so rare but will try to film it as I found it to be an incredibly beautiful species.

  2. ontarion on Tue, 28th Feb 2012 3:30 pm 

    Hello Steve Almeida — Please do send us a photo. We’d love to post it on our Facebook page or maybe as a featured photo on this website. We can also help confirm the ID. You can send it to me at johnh@ontarionature.org

  3. hunter on Sun, 30th Sep 2012 8:44 pm 

    i’ve just aquired a pair of downy woodpeckers in our back yard male and female will they be wintering here in south western ontario and will they mate ??? they seem to have no problem with the blue jay and cardinal

  4. Suzanne Atkinson on Tue, 16th Oct 2012 2:23 pm 

    I saw a large bird with- bigger then a crow- flying on my farm on Sunday. What made it so distinctive was the broad band of white which reached across both of its wings as it flew. Was it an ivory billed? Are there any other birds with that distinctive white band across their wings? thanks.

  5. Diana on Thu, 17th Jan 2013 7:14 pm 

    I do believe we have either a golden fronted or red bellied woodpecker here just north of Parry Sound. They vas well as the downey were frequent in November/December but we have no seen any woodpeckers since just after Christmas. Do they migrate? This us our first winter up here and we were very excited to find what my book called the golden fronted woodpecker. Could you share your thoughts. Thanks

  6. Robin on Wed, 15th May 2013 1:31 pm 

    I took a picture of a bird that just hit my window, wondering what kind of bird it is and hope that it will recover and fly away soon. How can I find out what kind of bird it is?
    Robin

  7. Noah Cole on Wed, 15th May 2013 2:54 pm 

    Hello Robin,

    I am sorry to hear that a bird has hit your window, though I’m glad that we’ll be able to help identify it. Would you be able to send me your photo and I’ll be able to confirm its ID.

    Best Regards,

    Noah
    noahc@ontarionature.org

  8. Noah Cole on Wed, 15th May 2013 3:02 pm 

    Hello Diana,

    Downy woodpeckers would be somewhat common in your area in January, and are notably smaller than the red-bellied woodpeckers. Between the two, it would be more likely that you have have seen a red-bellied woodpecker or a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker north of Parry Sound as the golden-fronted woodpecker typically lives towards the central-southern United States. Red-bellied woodpeckers typically do not migrate, or if they do they don’t migrate very far.

  9. Noah Cole on Wed, 15th May 2013 3:09 pm 

    Hello Suzanne,

    The large woodpecker you saw was likely a pileated woodpecker. They are possibly presently North America’s largest woodpecker. A white stripe is visible on their neck and on their wings in flight.

    Ivory-billed woodpeckers have extremely rarely been reported to have been seen in the past decade, there is debate as to if they are indeed extinct.

  10. Katie on Tue, 11th Jun 2013 10:03 pm 

    Hi there,
    I am a wildlife photographer from Smiths Falls, ON. I was wondering if your magazine purchases its images for Ontario photographers? I may have some images you might be interested in. Just a general inquiry.
    Thanks
    Katie

  11. ontarion on Wed, 12th Jun 2013 3:38 pm 

    Hello Katie,

    Thanks for getting in touch. We do purchase photos for ON Nature magazine. Please contact Colleen with some samples of your work at: colleenc@ontarionature.org

    Thanks.

  12. Anne-Denise Mejaki on Thu, 16th Jan 2014 2:52 pm 

    Hello, I live in New Liskeard, ON and have just seen a beautiful woodpecker in my backyard tree that called out to us. So amazing and surprising. It was large as a raven with red top extending out on head and white around its head (black body). I wonder if it could be an Ivory-billed woodpecker? When I returned outside with my camera, it was unfortunately gone. I will send photos should it return. Just wanted to let you know.

  13. ontarion on Thu, 16th Jan 2014 9:57 pm 

    Hello Anne-Denise,

    It was very likely a pileated woodpecker!

    In the image at the top of this article, the centre photo shows a pileated woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers are large and crow-sized. Both male and female pileated woodpeckers have white on their heads, under a red crest. Though the male pileated woodpecker has a red crown and a red malar (under its eye, behind the beak).

    In the past, ivory-billed woodpeckers have been found in the United States, but there have been very few sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in recent history.

    Thanks for letting us know!

    ON Noah

  14. Joanne Dunsford on Tue, 18th Feb 2014 7:14 pm 

    Hello,

    We were up at the cottage in Minden, Ont this weekend and to our surprise a woodpecker (thinking it is a Pileated) made a hole the size of a soup bowl on one side and four smaller holes the size of a coffee cup on the other side of this massive great white pine tree. The wood chips are the size of a nickel. This tree was very healthy and now I’m wondering what will happen to it and will they build a nest this spring?

    JD

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