Bird Identification – Our Five Common Woodpeckers

If, as you walk through some old orchard or along the borders of a woodland tangle, you see a high-shouldered, stocky bird clinging fast to the side of a tree “as if he had been thrown at it and stuck,” you may be very sure he is a woodpecker. Four of our five common, non-union carpenters wear striking black and white suits, patched or striped, the males with red on their heads, their wives with less of this jaunty touch of colour perhaps, or none, but wearing otherwise similar clothes. Only the dainty little black and white creeping warbler could possibly be confused with the smallest of these sturdy, matter-of-fact artisans, although, as you know, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and kinglets also haunt the bark of trees; but the largest of these is smaller than downy, the smallest of the woodpeckers. One of the carpenters, the big flicker, an original fellow, is dressed in soft browns, yellow, white and black, with the characteristic red patch across the back of his neck.

It is easy to tell a woodpecker at sight or even beyond it, when you see or hear him hammering for a dinner, or drumming a love song, or chiseling out a home in some partly decayed tree. How cheerfully his vigorous taps resound! Hammer, chisel, pick, drill, and drum—all these instruments in one stout bill—and a flexible barbed spear for a tongue that may be run out far beyond his bill, like the hummingbird’s, make the woodpecker the best-equipped workman in the woods. All the other birds that pick insect eggs, grubs, beetles and spiders from the bark could go all over a tree and feast, but the woodpecker might follow them and still find plenty left, borers especially, hidden so deep that only his sticky, barbed tongue could drag them out.

As you see his body flattened against the tree’s side perhaps you wonder why he doesn’t fall off. Do you remember why the swifts, that sleep against the inside walls of our chimneys, do not fall down to the hearths below? Like them and the bobolink, the woodpeckers prop themselves by their outspread, stiffened tails. Moreover, they have their toes arranged in a curious way—two in front and two behind, so that they can hold on to a section of bark very much as an iceman holds a piece of ice between his tongs. Smooth bark conceals no larvae nor does it offer a foothold, which is why you are likely to see woodpeckers only on the trunks or the larger limbs of trees where old, scaly bark grows.