• Christopher Stephens, MSc

The Woodpecker's Tale

Woodpeckers Climb Trees with World Class Gear

A Northern Flicker Scours a Coast Douglas-fir for Insect Life in Burnaby, BC

Some of nature's most fascinating facts seem like tall tales at first glance, or at least concepts uncannily similar to familiar human innovations. For example, spiked climbing boots are well known in forestry. It is a little known but amazing fact that birds have arrived upon this same concept of wild lands technology.

Most people observing a woodpecker would not know the adaptive secret these birds carry in the form of a tail that lends them real life climbing superpowers. No, the woodpecker's remarkable tail is no tall tale. The woodpecker's spiked tail lets the birds climb the tallest of trees without fear of a backwards fall, not to mention great difficulty in accessing meals.

The beautiful red-shafted western form Northern Flicker pictured perfectly displays the spiked retrices, or tail feathers that characterize woodpeckers. When a woodpecker like this flicker selects a feeding site on a tree trunk, the zygotactyl feet, which consist of two claws that are forward facing and two claws rearward facing hook onto the tree. Then, the spiked tail feathers anchor into the tree, bracing the bird firmly against the trunk. Hammering on the tree's surface can then be carried out at leisure, whether the bird is boring to extract termites, sap or simply to create a nest cavity, activities that vary depending on the species and season. The pictured flicker spent ample time in a Coast Douglas-fir tree in Burnaby, BC's Central Park in June 2020, making use of the tree's insect rich bark. The thick, corrugated bark is itself an adaptation to conserve water.

Woodpeckers are also opportunists. When any kind of disturbance occurs, such as a fire, tree fall or insect outbreak, woodpeckers are first on the scene in a significant number of cases. Woodpeckers are master ecosystem engineers, creating crucial habitat for a rich variety of avian and non-avian species alike. Owls, ducks and wrens all benefit from the activities of woodpeckers. Compared to the vast number of trees in existence, a healthy woodpecker population is relatively small and means it is a healthy forest. By helping woodpeckers, you can support species that are valuable for pest control and ecotourism as well as the woodpeckers themselves.

In a future article, we will explore how certain specialized woodpeckers assist hummingbirds.


 © 2020 by Christopher M. Stephens Consulting & Writing

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