By Peggy Doty
It doesn’t seem to matter the age of the observer, everyone knows a woodpecker when they see one on a tree.
There are many unique birds in the world, but these birds are one of the most amazing and unique groups of birds in North America. Woodpeckers are one of the most obvious groups of birds in Illinois because of their unique way of searching for food. They are highly specialized with unique physical adaptations, which help them to survive. In addition, other animals have a dependence on the success of woodpeckers. They could be considered a keystone animal in the woodlands and backyards where they built homes in past years because they create shelter for small owls and mammals who have no other way to make those tree cavities.
There are seven species of woodpeckers in Illinois. The males of all seven species have at least some red feathers on their heads. Woodpeckers are characterized by having zygodactyls feet (two toes point toward the front and two toes point toward the rear), stiff tail feathers and long tongues. They eat countless tons of insects annually, which greatly minimizes pest damage. In some instances, these excavating geniuses can become the enemy of anyone living in a home with a wooden exterior and on the same city block bring complete delight to the person watching their birdfeeders through the window.
Fall is a great time to watch for woodpeckers in backyards and on woodland walks. They are also easy to attract to birdfeeders with the right snacks and are impressive to watch. They will eat multitudes of black oil sunflowers and suet, and they especially adore peanuts. Even though their beak is designed for extreme hammering, none of the species can crack open shelled food and must wedge it into the feeder or take it to a tree or other structure, to brace it in order to peck it open. Their tongues are also unique as they are attached in the upper part of their skull. The tip of the tongue has tough tendon that has fishhook like points for stabbing and pulling out insect larva out of trees.
Most of the woodpeckers will stick around in the winter, so if you have a wood exterior on your home you may want to skip attracting them to feeders. In the spring, woodpeckers excavate holes for nesting purposes and in the winter for protection from the weather. They do not know the difference between the side of a tree and wood siding. That said, with very few exceptions birds are protected by federal law.
For more information on woodpeckers and other birds, visit the University of Illinois website, Living with Wildlife in Illinois, at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/.