Photo © Melody Lytle
One warm spring day, decades ago, a movement caught my eye, and I quickly ducked behind a tree on our family property deep in the East Texas woods. Not 25 yards away landed a giant woodpecker — a pileated woodpecker — at a round hollow carved into the side of a massive black willow trunk.
The bird and its mate were excavating a cavity. The male immediately lowered its head, dropped its entire body into the cavity and, except for the tip of its tail, disappeared momentarily, only to emerge with a bill full of wood chips. Then, like a wet dog shaking off water, the woodpecker shook its head and sent those pieces of wood raining to the ground.
Heck, I’d need several different tools to be able to achieve what that amazing bird was doing to that tree. Watching the mated pair switch duties at that construction site also reminded me of my own parents working together to get a job done at our homeplace. I was mesmerized by the nest building that whole weekend. I spent hours watching those birds make finishing touches to what I later discovered was their nursery.
This wasn’t my first encounter with a pileated woodpecker. In fact, a few years earlier, as a preteen, it was the gateway species that opened my eyes to the wonderful world of birds and nature. Ever since, I’ve been in awe of woodpeckers and, now in my early 50s, my fascination with woodpeckers has not waned.
What makes a woodpecker so amazing? Is it the stiff tail feathers that act like a third leg to help the bird prop against the trunk of a tree? Is it the sharp nails on their feet that serve as lumberjack spikes? Is it the extra-long tongue used for extracting food items crawling deep inside cracks and crevices? Or is it the thick skull and special shock-absorbing neck muscles that keep woodpeckers safe as they beat their heads against wood? An emphatic “yes” to all the above. No other bird is made to survive in trees quite like a woodpecker; this is what makes them so special.
My fascination with woodpeckers has become somewhat of a life’s journey. In graduate school, I wrote a thesis on woodpeckers, and my field sites and university were both located in, you guessed it, the deep woods of East Texas (go Lumberjacks!). After all, where is the diversity of woodpeckers greater than in the most wooded part of our state? I’ve published numerous papers on woodpeckers, many of which appear in scientific journals. I’ve traveled to other countries specifically to observe woodpeckers, including the Atlantic Forest of northeast Argentina in 2013 to “shadow” a friend working on a very rare woodpecker known as the helmeted woodpecker. Thus, I’ve long considered myself a qualified fan of woodpeckers. Maybe I, too, am hard-headed?
In Texas, there are 16 species of woodpeckers and allies; they go by a variety of other names (including sapsuckers and flickers), but they’re all in the woodpecker family. Fourteen on this list are regularly occurring species; one is a former inhabitant, the ivory-billed woodpecker. (I’ve excluded the red-breasted sapsucker since it has only three documented records in the Lone Star State.)
Let’s peck around and learn a little about these great birds.
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