If you spend time in the woods of Montana, you are undoubtedly familiar with the rhythmic rat-tat-tat of the woodpecker as it chisels its beak into the bark of a tree. Their familiar drum rolls are heard most often in the spring but are common all year long. This drumming cadence is unique to the woodpecker and a welcome sound in the forest canopy. Both sexes of woodpeckers drum throughout the year, however; they are even more rambunctious and noisy during the breeding season. Drumming or hammering serves to advertise their territory and to attract a mate.
Much of the signaling, foraging and breeding activities of woodpeckers involves the woodpecker’s bill. Woodpeckers have extremely strong bills for drumming and drilling on trees and long sticky tongues to extract food. Although used repeatedly over its lifetime, the woodpecker’s beak never needs sharpening. It can cut into a tree like a steel chisel and never dull. To prevent brain damage, nature had provided a number of adaptations to protect the woodpecker’s brain. The bird’s brain is rather small and is positioned to minimize contact between the brain and the skull. The woodpecker’s eyes are also unusual in that a millisecond before contact with the tree, a thick nictitan membrane closes over the bird’s eye to protect it from flying debris. The slit-like nostrils are also protected by special feathers to cover them from wood dust.
Woodpeckers exhibit a diverse variety of vocal sounds including a strange rattle-like sound that is often vocalized during antagonistic encounters with other birds that encroach on their territory. Woodpeckers also emit a high pitched squeal that sounds like an injured animal. This sound is an unsettling warning to predators and has been known to “run cold chills down the back” of many a hiker. Woodpeckers are monogamous and both sexes share incubation duties and care for the young. They will usually have between 3 and 6 hatchlings and normally mate once a year.
Woodpeckers are quite beneficial as they eat huge quantities of insects. They are especially appreciated for the role they play in controlling the current infestation of Mountain Pine Beetle that plagues the Northwest. When the beetle burrows into the bark and lays its eggs, the larvae feast on the substance of the tree for a year before reaching adulthood. About the size of a grain of rice, millions of these grubs are devoured by woodpeckers. With its barbed, long sticky tongue, a single woodpecker can consume as many as 14,000 grubs in a single season. A woodpecker’s diet also includes seeds, berries, fruit and tree sap. Huckleberries are a favored treat.