Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.

References
http://onnaturemagazine.com/ontario%E2%80%99s-woodpeckers.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/insects.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/downy-woodpecker.html

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About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

One response to “Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 06/03/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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