Spring is a time for woodpeckers | Columns | duboiscountyherald.com – The Herald


Partial cloudiness early, with scattered showers and thunderstorms overnight. Low near 55F. Winds light and variable. Chance of rain 50%..
Partial cloudiness early, with scattered showers and thunderstorms overnight. Low near 55F. Winds light and variable. Chance of rain 50%.
Updated: April 21, 2022 @ 9:48 pm

Hoosier State
Press Association
I have been greeted on recent mornings by a greening world and the staccato rapping of woodpeckers in the trees below us. Mushrooms and trout lilies, blooming redbuds and early butterflies can’t be far behind, for spring is a time for those magnificently chatty birds, which we often hear long before we ever see them.
Indiana is home to a third of the 21 species of woodpeckers found in the United States, and I am fortunate to live in a place where all seven can be seen, six regularly, if I pay attention. I’m told that the appropriately-named yellow-bellied sapsucker is only a migrant, but even then, it isn’t unusual to spot one in April or May if I am lucky. As to the red-bellied and red-headed, the pileated and downy, the flicker and the hairy, they all seem to favor the buggy trees of our wetlands, the suet I leave at my feeders, the canopy of a now-flourishing forest alive with sycamores and cherry, oak and beech.
As inventive and hardy as we humans think we are, woodpeckers are much more durable. As we live our lives, mostly clothed, and often restrained by safety belts, our heads covered with helmets, our eyes protected by goggles, our feet safer under steel-toed boots, woodpecker anatomy makes them tougher than we can imagine. Bird enthusiast and blogger, Alex Forsythe, tells us that the impacts the birds’ heads withstand are about 1,200 times the force of gravity (humans sustain concussions at 80 G’s) as they blast away at trees 20 times per second and up to 12,000 times a day. That’s like “slamming into a brick wall at 26,000 miles per hour,” she says.
Forsythe, who fell in love with birds in childhood through 4-H, says that woodpecker physiology has fascinated her for a long time. “A woodpecker’s brain sits sideways in its head; it’s 90 degrees off from that of a human,” she wrote in an article for the Indiana Audubon Society. “Rather than impact the brain at the front point, the force is distributed so that less is applied to any one area… The woodpecker’s brain is also more snuggly fitted inside its head…it cannot move or collide with its skull as easily. The large hyoid bones that wrap all the way around the skull act like seat belts for the brain, and the thick, plate-like, spongy bone surrounding the brain serves as armor.”
According to Forsythe, who was the first recipient of Indiana’s “Young Birder of the Year” award, the woodpecker’s unusually thick neck muscles, a third inner eyelid, its powerful beak, and the fact that its brain weighs only two grams (about the same mass as two paperclips), are other reasons the bird is magnificently designed to jackhammer trees in search of a meal. In fact, woodpeckers are more than just something worth watching as they feed; scientists continue to borrow from their engineering in the development of helmets and protective coverings; one source tells me that it was a woodpecker’s skull that inspired new designs for “black box” data recorders for airliners.
It’s not only the skull that inspires awe in woodpeckers, says ornithologist and birding friend, Dr. Peter Scott. He tells me the birds’ tongues and tails have unique qualities too.
“I love the anatomical drawings of how their sticky barbed tongue wraps around the back of their skull, and extends and retracts readily,” Scott says. “One thing is that the distinctive adaptations are so obvious and make sense: the stiff tail feathers that prop the bird up on a tree trunk; the cushioned skull; the extensible tongue…Sapsuckers drill for sap, unlike any other woodpecker. Flickers forage on the ground much of the time. Pileateds are capable of extracting the grubs of huge beetles from deep in sassafras trees. Red-headed woodpeckers are acorn specialists much of the time, and migrate to areas with good crops. And so on.”
Scott too loves the spring for its woodpeckers: “This time of year, early spring, I think of as ‘woodpecker time;’ they are among the most conspicuous birds because there is little foliage, they are ready to breed, and the males are advertising themselves with drumming calls and vocalizations. Once trees leaf out and they are down to business raising young, they are much quieter and less conspicuous,” he says.
As fascinating as woodpecker engineering is, their unique behaviors may be even more so. There is something nearly primeval in hearing the huge, crow-sized pileated woodpeckers as they rocket through a tangle of trees in the woods. One can find evidence of their work — on cherry and black walnut trees most, it seems to me-as their distinctive rectangular drillings leave piles of wood chips in their wake. Unlike other birds, pileated woodpeckers line their nests, not with down or grasses, but with those hard chips, its nesting habits reflecting its work ethic and austere lifestyle.
I get a daily dose of woodpeckers here. The red-headed — which Scott says is the “handsomest” — regularly come to our front yard feeder, where we have seen them feeding their young later in the summer. Most of all, we see the downy woodpeckers, small but mighty and frequently seen shaking and rapping on reed grasses and corn stalks, and arguing among themselves for a turn at our suet. We have seen sapsuckers too, although rarely, and soon, as the grass grows a few inches, I will see a Northern flicker feeding on the ground with other birds, their feathers a bizarre mixture of red and gray, black spots and bright yellow-shafted tail feathers. I may see hairy woodpeckers more than I know, for they look very much like the downy, only larger and with a longer beak; my only photographs are a bit blurry, as they are fast movers.
At just 22 years old, Forsythe has learned what so many others have taken a lifetime to discover: “I believe bird watching is a gateway to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world, and studies have shown that having a connection to the world around us is very beneficial to our physical and mental health.”
This spring may be the best time to prove her right.
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