One Woodpecker: A Photo Essay

Most birders I know have a weakness for woodpeckers. It’s partly the drumming that seduces us: that monotone hammering woodpeckers make every spring to claim a territory and find a mate. But it’s also their shape and color. Shape because every part of a woodpecker’s anatomy—bill, skull, ribcage, tail feathers, and feet—has been adapted to its peculiar foraging techniques on the trunks of trees.

Shot of a male Hairy Woodpecker showing feet and tail.
A male Hairy Woodpecker clings to the side of a dead tree. The clawed toes on each foot and the bird’s stiff tail feathers help to resist the downward and outward pulls of gravity while the woodpecker works in a vertical plane to find its food.

Color because most North American woodpeckers are something like the Tuxedo Cat of the avian world, clothed in a simple but striking arrangement of black-and-white plumage, often with a Scarlet Pimpernel dash of red somewhere on the head.

A male Downy Woodpecker at its nest cavity.
A male Downy Woodpecker excavates his nest cavity during the month of April. Note the smear of red feathers on the back of the head–a female would lack this bit of color. Note also the band on the bird’s leg, just above his right foot, and that he’s chosen a dead tree for his nest hole.

Another reason to like woodpeckers is that they’re common enough to fill in for our target species on slow birding days. When I can’t find the owl or hawk or thrush I’m looking for, sooner or later I’ll hear that irregular, intermittent tapping sound a woodpecker makes while exploring a tree trunk for bugs and grubs. Then I’ll see the bird itself hitching up the trunk, so intent on what it’s doing that it’s oblivious of me. “Come closer,” it seems to say. “Come right over here and take as many photos as you like.”

A female Northern Flicker, closeup.
A female Northern Flicker on the side of a tree. Both male and female flickers have a red chevron on the back of the head, but the male also has a black malar stripe that runs below the bill. This bird was sleeping with her eyes closed when I first saw her. When I took the photo, I was close enough that I could have reached out and touched her with my hand.

This happened just the other day, when I was looking for a Barred Owl that had been spotted on the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto. I searched the woods where the owl was seen, but the bird had flown.

Barred Owl with ruffled feathers.
A Barred Owl on the Leslie Street Spit. These owls are patient with human intruders until they get too close or become too many. Any owl that feels its roosting area has been overrun will find a different place to rest during the day.

I’d just turned to leave when I heard the tapping. Not three meters from where I stood, a female Hairy Woodpecker was busy peeling bark off a dead tree. Operating on the if-life-gives-you-lemons principle, I started snapping photos. My camera is fairly noisy, especially in burst mode, but the click-and-snap didn’t seem to faze the woodpecker.

A Hairy Woodpecker at rest on the side of a tree.
A female Hairy Woodpecker scoping out the trunk of a dead tree. Note the absence of red feathers on the back of her head.

One advantage to shooting in bursts was that it provided sequences of shots that helped me to understand exactly how the woodpecker accomplished its task of finding something to eat under the bark of the tree. First, as in the photo above, came the straight-on, wide-eyed look at the target area. Next, the bird gave the tree a hard rap with its bill to displace the bark and drill into the trunk. Every time it did this, the woodpecker closed its eyes to protect them from flying woodchips.

Hairy Woodpecker drilling into a tree trunk.
The woodpecker raps on the tree trunk. The bird’s bill is perfectly perpendicular to the vertical trunk. This approach distributes the shock of contact on a straight line that runs below the brain case, which helps to preserve the bird’s grey matter over years of hammering.

Finally, the woodpecker would rear back with its eyes open again and the prey—in this case a spider—in its bill.

Hairy Woodpecker extracts a spider from a tree.
The woodpecker extracts a spider from beneath the tree bark. A woodpecker’s saliva consists of an adhesive slime that coats the tongue and assists the bird in securing its prey.

Sometimes, the woodpecker’s tapping would uncover the cocoon of a butterfly or moth, which the bird would pull apart to expose the larva it contained.

Hairy Woodpecker pulling apart a cocoon.
The woodpecker pulls apart a cocoon on the side of the tree. Different types of butterfly and moth larvae shelter in cocoons under tree bark over the winter. In the spring, those that have survived emerge as adults.

I spent about half an hour photographing this one woodpecker, and she never rested, never stopped her work of excavating dead tree trunks for things to eat. When I left, she was still working, and the sound of her tapping accompanied me on my way out of the woods.

The thought occurred that there aren’t any feeders in this particular park, so whatever the bird wants to eat, she has to find herself. Especially in the cold of winter, she must spend most of the day foraging just to get enough food to keep her warm.

To revise a phrase from Thoreau, what a revelation it would be “to think like a [bird] for a moment.” How would that change the way we viewed a forest? For one, it would annihilate any hint of boredom. It would do so by getting us to see the life, the nourishment, that exists even within those things that appear to be dead.

A female Hairy Woodpecker on the Leslie Street Spit.
A well-fed Hairy Woodpecker pauses in her almost constant search for food over the cold days of winter. Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit has a diversity of habitats that support dozens of woodpeckers throughout the year.


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8 thoughts on “One Woodpecker: A Photo Essay”

  1. Really good Ed! I love the woodpeckers and we have quite a few near us in No. Florida. The most common are red bellied and pileated woodpeckers. Occasionally we’ll come across a red headed woodpecker. The drumming is the most interesting behavior for me. I suspect they’re continually scouting for and trying out new and better drums

    • Thanks, Chris. We get the Red-bellied here and a few–too few–of the Pileated, but we almost never see a Red-headed Woodpecker. And yes, the drumming is fascinating. I think you’re right–that they actually seek out the branches and trunks that resound the most.

  2. What a delightful essay! I felt as if I was right there (the amazing photos helped with that), as the bird looked for her food. You’ve revealed what the life of a bird is like–filled with industry and necessity. So much to admire. Next time I see woodpeckers in the woods, I’ll try to get closer….

    • Thanks, Barry. And yes, the camera–a Canon 7D Mark II–is a real workhorse, but what really does the heavy lifting is the lens, a Canon EF 100-400 mm telephoto. A superb piece of glass.


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