THROUGH THE WOODS: Condo for birds

Downy woodpecker. Photo by Nancy Ker

ON THE WEST SIDE of my long driveway was what I called the bird condo. It was an old tree, mostly rotten with no top or branches, and stood as a natural totem. It was a sculpture made by wind and rain and mostly by the birds who chiseled out many holes from top to bottom. Several friends and family members remarked on it, mostly with offers to take it down. They considered it an eyesore, some worried that it would fall on someone.

It was actually out of the way from doing much harm. There are a few who understand that it is nice to just leave things alone sometimes and watch. The holes varied in size and shape and told which birds probably made them and why. Tiny, older holes about a ¼” in diameter were made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. These robin-size birds make a series of holes just deep enough to let the sap flow out. They return later to sip the rich fluids and to keep the holes open. One wonders if they are the birds the Native Americans watched and learned how to collect maple sap for its sweet sugar.

Other birds may drink the sap too, and eat the insects drawn to the sugar. Our smallest woodpecker is the downy, who looks very much like its larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker but has a series of black dots in the white feathers at the edges of the tail. To keep them straight, remember the downy has dots.

Our largest woodpecker is the pileated, the one that is crow-sized and has the beautiful red crest, like the cartoon “Woody” Woodpecker. They make large oblong holes, not round ones like the others. They are so good at chiseling wood that they may completely gut a large tree to get the insect larva inside. People get upset if these birds attack a yard tree, but it shows that the tree is unhealthy, probably dying, and full of insects.

They also do this to buildings and anything else that is wooden and is infested with their favorite foods. To thwart this problem and withstand the high winds on my hill I built my house with a siding that is made of concrete and fiber. Our woodworking woodpeckers have special beaks and bodies. The pileated can whack a tree 20 times per second totaling about 12,000 whacks per day and extracts insects and larva with a tongue that extends 4” beyond the tip of the beak. The tongue is an anatomy nightmare that loops from the jawbone, is inside the right nostril, on top of the skull, and around to the beak. It is best to look at it in a diagram to even begin to comprehend this. The tip of the tongue is barbed and has a sticky substance to hold the insects.

The whole woodpecker body absorbs and dissipates the shock of each blow. Scientists have been studying this to see why woodpeckers don’t get headaches and traumatic brain injuries like we humans do. The woodpecker’s nictitating membrane or third eyelid closes during the peck so the eye is protected from flying chips. The eye itself is adapted so the retina is not detached by the force. The muscles of the head and neck cushion the shock and there are special adaptations in the neck that also help. It all works for the good of the woodpecker and many others of the forest.

The resulting bird condos contain many different sized and shaped holes in the trees that provide shelters for a wide variety of cavity nesters, like nuthatches and chickadees, and sometimes flying squirrels. Woodpeckers make a dying tree useful for many creatures, and the process is amazing to observe.

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