Winter bird feeding is one of the most common and popular hobbies in the U.S.
Nearly 60 million Americans feed birds in their yards during winter and summer. This represents about 40% of all Americans, making backyard bird feeding a common everyday activity. The industry is estimated to be worth $6 billion. The U.S. leads the world in supplementary bird feeding, both in terms of money spent and the volume of food provided for our feathered friends.
Our backyard feeding stations can bring in a wide variety of birds in winter. Some of the most common and usually the first to show up are the black-capped chickadees. They are tiny gray, black and white birds that will sing or call all year long. The white-breasted nuthatches are usually not far behind the bold chickadees. If you’re lucky, a small flock of American goldfinches visit your feeding station. They always bring a lot of action and a splash of muted yellow to the winter landscape.
Depending upon the kind of food you provide or the type of feeder you put out, there is one group of birds that is always fun to see visiting your feeding station. These are the woodpeckers. This is an amazing group of birds that are unique even among the uniqueness of other birds.
The most common woodpecker visiting backyard feeders in winter and summer are the downy woodpeckers. These small and bold woodpeckers are considered the most common woodpeckers in North America. But that wasn’t always the case. Red-headed Woodpeckers were once considered the most common woodpeckers. In 1830, John James Audubon said, “It is impossible to form any estimate of the number of these birds seen in the United States; I safely assure that a hundred have been shot upon a single cherry tree in one day.” In other words, there were a lot of these woodpeckers, and it wasn’t uncommon to shoot birds such as woodpeckers just because.
Woodpeckers are different from other birds in so many ways. For example, they have bills/beaks that are larger and stronger than most other birds of their size. They use their bills for excavating nesting cavities in trees. This isn’t totally unique to the woodpeckers; other birds do this kind of activity, but the woodpeckers have perfected it.
To survive thousands of powerful impacts on their brain, woodpeckers have their brains positioned slightly above the plane of their bill. In other words, the impact from striking the tree is concentrated just below the brain cavity, avoiding a direct impact on the brain. They have extremely long tongues that exit their oral cavity and wrap around the outer skull of the bird to help absorb each blow. This is truly a remarkable adaptation to a high-impact lifestyle and prevents the birds from getting concussions.
But banging their faces against a tree isn’t the only thing that woodpeckers do so well. They do things that most other birds can’t do. They cling to the sides of trees as if gravity doesn’t exist in their world. We see woodpeckers clinging to the sides of trees, but have you ever stopped to think about what exactly they are doing? Woodpeckers have a different toe arrangement compared to other birds. Most birds have three toes pointing forward and one toe back. The woodpeckers have two toes forward and two toes back. The placement of one toe from the front to the back allows these woodpeckers to land on a tree and creep around on the side of a tree, defying gravity and making it look so easy.
Another incredible adaptation that woodpeckers employ is exceptionally stiff tail feathers. Their tail acts like the third leg of a tripod when they land on vertical surfaces. Just holding on with two feet, with an extra toe on the backside of the foot, isn’t enough to defy gravity. It requires a tail that fully functions for flying and also functions as a third leg of the tripod. They do this with a larger-than-average central shaft on the individual tail feathers. Most woodpeckers have a large amount of black pigment in their tail feathers. The black pigment helps to strengthen the feather. They also have strong muscles that control the tail movement and push the tail downward to brace against the tree surface. All of these adaptations in the tail help the woodpeckers move about on the trees.
So, this winter, if you don’t already provide suet or peanuts to attract the woodpeckers in your area, consider modifying your feeding station to include some of our woodpecker friends at the table. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
We offer several ways for our readers to provide feedback. Your comments are welcome on our social media posts (Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, and LinkedIn). We also encourage Letters to the Editor; submission guidelines can be found on our Contact Us page. If you believe this story has an error or you would like to get in touch with the author, please connect with us.