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The Life of Woodpeckers, Birds That Keep Insects Under Control

Everybody knows a woodpecker when they see -or hear- it. Their very name describes their most common behavior, pecking at wood.

There are more than 200 species of woodpeckers. They all belong to the family Picadae. This family also includes birds called sapsuckers and flickers. Woodpeckers are found on all continents except Antarctica. They live in habitats ranging from dense forests to people's backyards.

Characteristics of Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers have thick skulls, strong neck muscles, and tough bills. All these features allow the birds to peck at wood with great force. They peck to eat. Most woodpeckers feed on insects and insect larvae that live inside trees.

The bird chips holes in wood or pries off bark to get at the insects. Then it uses its remarkably long tongue to grab the food. Some species, such as the northern flicker, feed on ants on the ground. Sapsuckers drink tree sap. Woodpeckers will also eat nuts, seeds, berries, and fruits.

Most species of woodpeckers have feet that are specialized for clinging to the sides of trees. They have two toes pointing forward, one on the side, and one pointing backward. Many species are colored black and white, though there is considerable variation. Some are brown, green, or gray, often with red markings on the head. Many have bars or spots. All species have special small feathers around their nostrils. These help prevent the birds from inhaling wood and dust as they peck.

Woodpeckers will also peck at wood just to make noise. This loud, rapid tapping is called drumming. It serves a similar role as singing does for most songbirds. It is used to mark territory and call to mates. Woodpeckers will drum on dead trees, road signs, and even the side of your house! Woodpecker vocalizations tend to be short, simple notes. But some species make extended trills or a loud series of ringing notes.

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The smallest woodpeckers belong to a subfamily called piculets. Some species in South America are no longer than 31/2 inches (9 centimeters). These include species like the scaled piculet. The largest woodpecker, at about 23 inches (60 centimeters), was the imperial woodpecker of Mexico. It is now thought to be extinct.

Life of Woodpeckers

Many species of woodpeckers keep the same mates for years. In a few species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker of the southeastern United States, family groups stay together year-round. The younger birds in these groups may even help raise the breeding pair's next batch of chicks.

Most woodpeckers dig holes in trees for nesting. They lay three to twelve white eggs, which are incubated by both parents. Often the female incubates during the day and the male at night. Young hatch in 9 to 19 days, blind and featherless. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at 18 to 30 days.

The young may remain with their parents for many months, or even years. Most species remain in one region year-round. But some, such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the northern flicker, migrate.

Woodpeckers and Their Environment

Woodpeckers help keep insect populations under control. And other species of birds will use the holes they create for nests. So will other animals, such as squirrels. On the other hand, woodpeckers can damage houses and other buildings as they search for food or nesting sites. And their pecking and drumming can sometimes annoy people.

Several species of woodpeckers are considered endangered. Some may even be extinct. The ivory-billed woodpecker of the southeastern United States and Cuba was thought to have become extinct in the mid-1900s. Much of its forest habitat had been destroyed. But in 2004 an unconfirmed sighting of the bird was made in Arkansas. Since then, several scientific expeditions have failed to find conclusive evidence of its survival.

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