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Backyard Bird Feeding

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 4, 2024

Winter bird feeding is one of the most common / popular hobbies in America. It is estimated that nearly 60 million Americans feed birds in their yards in winter or summer. That is about 40 percent of all American’s make backyard bird feeding part of their everyday activities. It’s estimated to be a 6-billion-dollar industry. America leads the world in supplementary bird feeding in terms of how much money we spend on bird feeding and the volume of food we provided for our feathery friends.

Our backyard feeding stations in winter can bring in a wide variety of birds. Some of the most common and usually the first to show up are the Black-capped Chickadees. They are tiny gray, black and white birds that will sing/call all year long. The White-breasted Nuthatches are usually not far behind the bold chickadees. If you’re lucky a small flock of American Goldfinches visit your feeding station. They always bring a lot of action and splash of muted yellow to the winter landscape.

Depending upon the kind of food you provide or the type of feeder you put out, there is one group of birds that is always fun to see visiting your feeding station. These are the woodpeckers. This is an amazing group of birds that are unique even among the uniqueness of other birds.

The most common woodpecker visiting backyard feeders, in both winter and summer, are the Downy Woodpeckers. These small and bold woodpeckers are considered the most common woodpeckers in North America. But that wasn’t always the case. Red-headed Woodpeckers were once considered the most common woodpeckers. In 1830 John James Audubon said, “it is impossible to form any estimate of the number of these birds seen in the United States; I safely assure that a hundred have been shot upon a single cherry tree in one day”. In other words, there were a lot of these woodpeckers, and it wasn’t uncommon to shoot birds such as woodpeckers just because.

Woodpeckers are different in so many ways from other birds. For example, they have bills/beaks that are larger and stronger than most other birds of their size. They use their bills for excavating nesting cavities in trees. This isn’t totally unique to the woodpeckers, there are other birds that do this kind of activity, but the woodpeckers have perfected it.

To survive thousands of powerful impacts to their brain, woodpeckers have their brains slightly above the plane of their bill. In other words, the impact from striking the tree is concentrated just below the brain cavity avoiding a direct impact to the brain. They have extremely long tongues that exit their oral cavity and wrap around the outer skull of the bird to help absorb each blow. This is truly a remarkable adaptation to a high impact lifestyle and prevents the birds from getting concussions.

But banging their faces against a tree isn’t the only thing that woodpeckers do so well. They do things that most other birds can’t do. They cling to the sides of trees as if gravity doesn’t exist in their world. We see woodpeckers clinging to the sides of trees all the time, but have you ever stopped to think about what exactly they are doing? Woodpeckers have a different toe arrangement compared to other birds. Most birds have three toes pointing forwards and one toe back. The woodpeckers have two toes forward and two toes back. The placement of one toe from the front to the back allows these woodpeckers to land on a tree and creep around on the side of a tree defying gravity and making it look so easy.

Another incredible adaptation that woodpeckers employ is exceptional stiff tail feathers. Their tail acts like the third leg of a tripod when they land on vertical surfaces. Just holding on with two feet with an extra toe on the backside of the foot isn’t enough to defy gravity. It requires a tail that fully functions for flying and also functions as a third leg of the tripod. They do this with a larger than average central shaft on the individual tail feathers. Most woodpeckers have a large amount of black pigment in their tail feathers. The black pigment helps to strengthen the feather. They also have a strong set of muscles that control the tail movement and push the tail downward to brace against the tree surface. All of these adaptations in the tail really help the woodpeckers move about on the trees.

So, this winter, if you don’t already provide suet or peanuts to attract the woodpeckers that live in your area, you might consider changing your feeding station to include some of our woodpecker friends at the table. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels extensively to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com or facebook.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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