Michael Ezell

Unique among the 400 or so bird species that live in or visit our state are the woodpeckers. The first thing noticed by anyone is their ability to knock on solid wood objects to chisel out nesting cavities, find insects to eat, and surprisingly, to communicate with other birds.

Out of 210 “Headbangers” in the world, Alabama is home to 8 species, with a 9th, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which was extirpated and believed to be extinct.

We have the Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, Red- Headed, Pileated, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker (Yellowhammer, our state bird), and the Endangered Red-Cockaded.

All are amazing to observe as they flitter through the winter woods with their distinctive undulating flight, clinging to trees and circling them to avoid detection.

They pound wood with such force it amazes me how they don’t rattle their brains in constant, football like, concussion collisions. Come to find out, they are built for this lifestyle. The structure of their skulls, beaks, and brains are built to transfer all the force to their stiff and braced lower jaw. Their brains are situated at a 90 degree angle compared to ours, so the force is spread out over a larger area and prevents damage. The bones of the front of their skull contain cushioning to protect their little bird brains and minimize injury. It’s like a modern football helmet built into the bodies of these little linebackers.

All species are cavity nesters and they pound out more holes than they can use so other, smaller cavity nesters like flycatchers and bluebirds benefit from their work. Bats and rodents also use these cavities for shelter and nesting at times.

The only migrant is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which only visits Alabama in winter and leaves its distinctive pattern of holes encircling a tree for feeding. They all nest in April and May with both parents sharing nest duty.

Woodpecker tongues can extend almost three times the length of their beaks, are barbed, and built for pulling insects out of tight places in tree bar crevices. These amazing creatures are preyed on by hawks, mammals, and of course, cats.

Their calls are some of the most distinctive and easiest to learn. If you get really good, (which I'm not yet), you can tell the species apart by their drumming cadences.

If you wish to attract these amazing birds, suet feeders are the ticket. Frowned on by some, but even more effective is to allow dead and dying trees to stand in your yard for nesting and feeding purposes. There is no better feeder you could put up than a slowly decaying tree, just make sure it’s away from buildings and cars so your insurance company doesn’t have to get involved.

Come on out to the park and take a hike. We see and hear lots of these amazing birds. Some of them put Heavy Metal bands and NFL linebackers to shame.

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