Woodpeckers: Master Excavators of Oakland County



Adult male Pileated Woodpecker searches for bugs and beetles in a dead Oakland County tree

Winged, wood-whacking, carpenters have been practicing their craft all spring. Evidence of their excavation skills is abundant, but sometimes almost hidden in plain sight. Contrary to myth, woodpeckers do not get headaches from banging away on a tree, a telephone pole, or the wood siding of a home. These master craftsmen have evolved powerful neck muscles, thick skulls and chisel-like bills that let them chip away at tree trunks with ease as they search out bugs, or create the perfect nesting cavity. Woodpeckers have a special skull bone, the hyoid bone, which functions a bit like a seat-belt for their brain. Their hyoid bone design diverts impact and vibrations away from the cranium and the woodpecker pounds on, free from headaches.

There is nothing subtle or discreet about the work of the Pileated Woodpecker. These red-crested forest giants leave obvious signs of their superb wood working skills as they whack away for tasty carpenter ants. The large rectangular cavities on the trunks of trees, with piles of wood chips on the forest floor, are hard to miss. Less obvious, are their more discreet, oblong shaped, cozy nesting cavity openings. Often missed by all but the most careful observers, are the smaller circular shaped nesting cavities of our other woodpecker species.


The classic rectangular excavations left by a Pileated Woodpecker chiseling for carpenter ants

In addition to hosting the largest woodpecker species of North America, the Pileated Woodpecker, Oakland County is home to the smallest woodpecker on the continent, the Downy Woodpecker. It is quite common to see Downy Woodpeckers visiting suet feeders in winter. This species nests in decaying limbs, snags or small dead trees that lean to one side. Some observant birders have noted, the entrance to their nesting cavity is usually on the side that leans downwards. That act of construction wisdom just may add protection from winds and heavy rains. Woodpeckers may be ‘thick-skulled’, but they are not short of survival techniques.


The almost hidden circular entrance hole for a Red-Bellied Woodpecker can be seen near the tree top

Five other species also live in our midst: the Hairy Woodpecker, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and my personal favorite, the female Red-bellied Woodpecker. It’s all about habitat, and Oakland County has great woodpecker habitat that may have improved as a result of the onslaught of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. This destructive beetle was first found in the United States in SE Michigan in 2002. It spread rapidly across the Midwest, killing millions of ash trees and creating pockets of altered environment that supported woodpeckers in the process.


A female Red-Bellied Woodpecker peers out of her nesting cavity at Rose Oaks County Park

Searching for the nesting cavities of woodpeckers is as much a matter of luck as having a general idea of where to look. In Oakland County, woodpeckers nest in most of our larger parks that have mature healthy hardwoods, dying trees and old snags. I have not seen any hard and fast rules, but the two active woodpecker nesting cavities I found this spring were both on the sides of trees that faced south. Perhaps that bit of extra warmth and sunlight made the location more desirable. The most exciting find was a female Red-bellied Woodpecker peering out of her nesting cavity with a curious look as if to ask who I was, and what I wanted. We watched each other for nearly five minutes before she slipped back into her nesting cavity at Rose Oaks County Park, and I continued down the trail on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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