Woodpeckers provide a much-needed splash of color during the winter months

“Even the woodpecker owes its success to the fact that he used his head.” – Author Unknown
The color of winter here in the Upper Peninsula is truly white, the ground is white, the sky, the trees, and even the wind is white on snowy days. There are hints at other colors, brown, gray, black. There is even blue hidden in middle of snowdrifts and lake ice. For oranges, yellows and reds the best bet is at sunrise and sunset.  Sure, there is still some red in viburnum and winterberry if you know where to look, but to find red with some life in it look for the northern cardinal. Usually, to find one in the Upper Peninsula, it means getting up early in the morning before sunrise or right at dusk when those shy birds are feeding.
But to see red from the window or with a sense of regularity it has to be woodpeckers. They are much more reliable and usually not too shy. They will visit feeders, especially ones with suet cakes or peanuts, but they will occasionally hit the sunflower feeders too. True, their patches of red are of varying size just on the heads, but they are bright crimson-red and eye-catching.
Throughout the year, nine types of woodpeckers can be found in the Upper Peninsula: downy, hairy, pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, black-backed, yellow-bellied sapsucker and northern flicker. Occasionally a few more wander into the U.P. American three-toed and Lewis’ woodpeckers have made it to the U.P. too, but only showing up on very rare occasions, and usually for just a day or two. The three-toed woodpeckers are from Canada and Lewis’s from the foothills of the Rockies and beyond to the west.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are the most common woodpeckers in Michigan, and can, from a distance, be tough to tell apart even for old-timers who have observed them for years. Their markings are nearly identical, mostly black and white patches, so their size and bill length provide the best ways to tell them apart.
Downy woodpeckers are around 5.5 to 6.5 inches long, similar in size to a sparrow, while hairy woodpeckers are 7.1 to 10.2 inches long – about the size of a robin. On both species, the red patches are on the back of the heads of the males only, the best way to tell the sexes apart. They are the woodpeckers most see around town and at feeders.
The majority of woodpeckers come in black, white and red. Birdwatchers know those colors usually mean a woodpecker, especially if perched on a branch or the trunk of a tree. They are insect eaters and have learned to tackle the challenges of extracting a meal from the trunk or limb of a tree by stripping away tough tree bark and even wood to reach a large array of insects.  Some wasps, ants and beetles lay their eggs in the cambium layer, the inner layer of bark, an area where the tree’s plumbing carries water from the roots up to the branches and leaves and food down to the trunk and roots.

“When birds burp, it must taste like bugs.” – Bill Watterson
Most woodpeckers spend their lives in the trees and rarely on the ground. In the U.P., only the northern flicker is adept enough to find comfort below the trees. They are the only woodpeckers this far north with predominantly brown plumage, perfect for blending in with leaves and other brown vegetation on the ground.
Flickers seek out ants, beetles and other ground insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. While they nest and drum from trees, they are most frequently found hammering the tops of ant hills, ambushing the alarmed ants as they rush to challenge the disturbance atop their colony. They are especially visible along street curbs in autumn, when young are being taught how to hunt.
Woodpeckers are especially well adapted for life in the trees. Most have a different configuration for the position of their toes. While most birds have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back, most woodpeckers have two forward and two back, providing better grasping abilities when holding on to bark and the sides of trees and even undersides of branches. While nuthatches, creepers, chickadees and even warblers may work up and down tree trunks and branches, they primarily probe and pry insects from crevices.

A pair of male northern flickers are shown fighting.

Woodpeckers apply much more pressure to bark and wood, hammering, pounding and chipping away at bark, rotten wood and occasionally live wood to get to their food.  They need to hold on tightly as they work. They also have stiff tail feathers to help them hold their bodies tightly as the work away, trying to extract food from wood, excavate holes for nesting or drumming to establish and hold territories and attract mates. As the woodpeckers push close to the surface of the trunk or limb to work the tail flattens, stiffens and spreads to provide balance for the woodpecker.
Their heads are also structured for hard work. They tend to hit the bark and wood at an angle to reduce the impact on their heads and brains. They have bones to help hold their brains in place, with one, the hyoid bone actually holding the brain tightly to avoid concussions. The lower part of their bill is harder and also helps absorb extra stress. Their tongues are especially long, sticky and adapted to spear insects and pull them out of small openings and into the birds’ mouths.
Red-bellied woodpeckers have become a more common woodpecker in northern Michigan over the past 10 years or so. They have been pushing northward for a century and climate change may be speeding up that process. They are strikingly marked, with black and white bars across their backs, light pinkish-red blush across their lower bellies. It is faint, but it gives the birds their name.
Males have an orangish-red mark extending from their bill to their nape, with the front patch more orange. Females only have a red strip from the very tops of their heads to their nape and the orange spot above their beaks. A bit stockier than hairy woodpeckers, they command the respect of all other birds at feeders as they pick at black-oiled sunflower seeds and suet. Their raspy calls are most often heard from high atop large oak and maple trees.
The woodpecker monarch of the Northwoods is the pileated woodpecker.  Pronounced with either a long or short “i” in pileated, they are almost startling as they fly across the sky or into suet at a feeding station. Their wingspans are two to two-and-a-half feet across. The size of crows, they have a large crimson crests, black bodies and black wings with white patches. Faces have white streaks and “moustaches” below the bills. Males have red ones, females black ones.
As hardy as hairies, downies and red-bellied woodpeckers, pileateds remain in their territory year-round through cold winter months, feeding almost exclusively on insects. They continually explore insect life in large trees, especially conifers like white pines and white cedars and deciduous trees like maples, poplars and maples. Their trademark holes are rectangular, and occasionally they will work through several inches of live wood to reach large colonies of carpenter ants in dead heartwood. This work often leads to assumptions they are severely damaging or killing trees, but once opened, the interiors damaged by rot, fungi and insect colonies are clear.
Their work can be extensive. Several pileated woodpeckers took on a large, mature, dead sugar maple tree on Co. Rd 550 – the Big Bay Road half a mile from the Dead River a few years back. Many drivers passing the tree noticed the woodpeckers chipping away on the trunk.
The pileated woodpeckers may have spent up to a month visiting the tree at different times until most of the bottom 12 feet were completely hollowed out. It was possible to sometimes see two different woodpeckers busy at the same time until one could look into the trunk in a number of places and see out the other side! And as big excavations go, this one was also popular with other woodpeckers able to get into smaller spots inside the tree and pick out the ants too. Hairy woodpeckers spent several days working there after the pileated woodpeckers were done.

“When the dead tree falls, the woodpeckers shared in its death.” – Malayan Proverb
As happy as pileated woodpeckers are high in the trees, they are not above checking out fallen logs, rotten stumps and dead wood at the base of living trees. It always catches hikers by surprise to flush pileated woodpeckers from their workstations on long stretches of dead wood on the ground, or even ant hills in the late summer and early fall. Like northern flickers, pileated woodpeckers take advantage of busy ant colonies, especially when new winged adults are leaving colonies to start new ones and can be seen on the ground pounding away at them.
Pileateds like large trees for nesting. When they are available, they will excavate holes in large dead pines and similarly large snags. In forests where dead wood has been removed, they will excavate nests in softer live trees like poplars. Residents of Marquette Township and Shiras Hills have had they summers enriched with the activity of pileated woodpeckers nesting in their yards and at least one active nest can be found on Presque Isle each summer.
Because their nests are often 20 feet high or more, they are easy to miss during the nesting season, and not seen until winter. That is a good time to check for activity, but not necessarily woodpecker activity. One nest in Minnesota was checked in late fall and a northern saw-whet owl was found roosting inside. Later that winter another check was made, and a family of flying squirrels was found keeping warm there.

A male red-bellied woodpecker.

In pockets of boreal forest in the U.P., black-backed woodpeckers can be found, especially in places where fire has damaged or killed trees. Black-backs prefer to flake off bark, especially on spruce and red pine trees and feed on the larvae of beetles feeding on the bark recently dead trees. Black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers are also a bit different with the males sporting yellow patches on the backs of their heads instead of red ones.
With the return of spring migratory woodpeckers return – northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The flickers will be noticed most by their loud repeating calls. They will nest in larger trees, digging out holes quickly, hoping to move in quickly after the holes are completed.
Other birds, like European starlings, are attracted to ready-made homes for their nests and will often watch woodpecker while they are working on nests. Once completed, they will wait until the woodpeckers move off to feed or get a drink and quickly move in themselves, fiercely defending their new home from the creators. Old nests are often used in subsequent years as both nesting and roosting sites by other birds like chickadees, nuthatches, tree swallows and bluebirds.
Sapsuckers offer a completely different look at woodpecker activity. When they return to the U.P. it is often in very early spring, usually in March or early April, when insect activity is extremely slow, except for a few flies and midges. The sapsuckers live up to their name by drilling rows of holes in the trunks of trees with good sap runs like apple, birch and maple but also in more unusual trees like alder and hemlock. The holes provide two types of food.
For the “sweet” trees like maples and apple, the sap is a great source of sugars. The sapsuckers will visit every half hour or so on good days and lap up the sap. Lots of other birds, hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers and kinglets all will hover and sip the sap from the small wells when they find them.
Where a clump of maple trees is present, the sapsuckers will create sets of wells in a number of trees and perch near them, alternating from tree to tree as the wells refill. They may also place themselves where they can see multiple sites and chase off other birds attempting to steal “their” food. Sapsuckers able to set up stations in their summer territory may feed on the sap for a week or so while the sap runs, and temperatures allow.
Migrating sapsuckers may feed for just a day or two before continuing to the north unless storms slow them down. A second food also may be attracted to the wells. Insects like flies, ants and wasps, may be drawn to the sap to feed on it also, creating an easy source of protein for the birds.
One of the best woodpeckers to find in the U.P. is now its rarest summer woodpecker resident, the red-headed woodpecker.  Perhaps the most striking of the Northwoods woodpeckers, both sexes have deep red heads, black bodies and bold white patches on the wings seen when they fly. They were once found across the U.P. and nesting right in towns, like Marquette. Two former nesting sites were on East and West Ridge Street in huge sugar maple trees. That was more than 30 years ago. Today just a few pairs nest in the entire Upper Peninsula, along the southern tier counties near Wisconsin.
They prefer more open areas like oak savannas, but areas along open streets were favored in the past too.  There is not a clear understanding of why their numbers have dropped so severely here, but loss of preferred trees – many dead trees have been cut down, residential developments, competition for nest sites with more starlings and probably most importantly the loss of insects due to pesticides and lawn care products have – made their numbers tumble. They do wander north in spring some years and hang around for a few days at some sites before heading back south.
Woodpeckers keep plenty of insects in check. They rarely do much to healthy trees and are not a huge concern there, but they do occasionally “attack” homes. In the springtime most woodpeckers announce their presence, claim their territories and attempt to attract a mate by drumming instead of singing. They look for surfaces capable of producing loud resonating drumming sounds when they drill them and frequently find wood siding the perfect place, causing damage to the wood.
Homeowners can discourage them by hanging netting over preferred spots, attaching balloons on strings or ribbons to the walls that can move in the wind or even play recordings of hawks or falcons to drive them away.
Woodpeckers are a delight to watch as they move ever so gracefully through trees, clearing insects from crevices and from under loose bark, providing homes for other animals and providing a flash of color on an otherwise colorless day in the cold of winter! With the oldest individuals of hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers all living up to 11 or 12 years you may have the same friends visiting your neighborhood for a long time providing a colorful, delightful sight.

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