Last week I was in the shop working on a project when I realized that for the entire hour that I had been there, I had been hearing the steady, drumming rhythm of a woodpecker pounding a nearby tree. I stepped out of the shop to look for the source of the sound, hoping to find out which species of woodpecker it was. I scanned the trunks of nearby trees without luck. Finally, I walked around the side of the well house to get a better look at the lower portion of the trees when a small woodpecker shot out in front of me and landed in a low-hanging branch ten feet away. I turned to look at the side of the well house and immediately saw a tidy hole in the wood siding just below the eave.
A quick inspection of the exterior and interior of the well house revealed the woodpecker had managed to make a clean 2” hole through the wood siding, but left the thin sheet of foam insulation lining the inside wall intact. This baffled me, but I couldn’t think about the why – all I could think about was that I was going to have to fix the hole and then, I would more than likely have to battle a persistent and stubborn bird who had no idea why I didn’t want it to make holes in my “tree”. I knew the latter would be the biggest challenge, for the culprit still sat in the nearby tree chastising me for interrupting his business. I turned my full attention on the vociferous bird.
Missouri is host to seven species of woodpeckers, including the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Red-headed-, Pileated-, Red-bellied-, Downy- and Hairy Woodpeckers. For the most part, identifying individual woodpecker species is easy, because while many have very similar colorations, all have very distinct markings that are unlike other species of their kind. However, the two smallest woodpeckers in Missouri – the Downy (Picoides pubescens) and the Hairy (Picoides villosus), are so similar in appearance that they are either confused as the same species or mistaken for one other. To correctly identify these two woodpeckers, look for the following variations.
Both are relatively small birds with similar-looking black and white bars and stripes on their wings, heads and tails.
Both have white bellies and rumps.
Both have white on their backs. Technically speaking, the Downy has a black back with a white patch in the middle – though visually they look about the same.
Males of both species have small red patches on the back of the head. These can be difficult to see at times.
The Hairy has a proportionately longer bill than the Downy, who’s bill is less than half the length of its head. This is unusual in a woodpecker.
The Hairy is often much larger and longer than the Downy, which is about the size of a bluebird.
The Hairy usually has all-white feathers on either side of it’s black tail, while the Downy’s often sport black bars.
Hairy woodpeckers have long, stiff tails, while Downy’s have very short tails that barely extend beyond their wing tips.
Both birds have distinct black “moustaches” extending from the beak to the neck. However, the Hairy woodpecker also has a distinct black bar that extends from the shoulder onto the chest. This may be difficult to see.
Last but not least, the Hairy tends to hold itself upright and prefers combing the trunks and main branches of trees. It will occasionally be seen at the base of trees or on the ground. The Downy is very acrobatic for a woodpecker and is often seen hanging upside down. It prefers smaller branches and twigs to trunks
I know immediately that I’m dealing with a male Hairy Woodpecker. What I don’t know is why he has decided to carve a hole in my well house. It’s not nesting season, so that is not a factor. Maybe he is looking for a warm spot to ride out the cold front that is moving in. But, if that were the case, why didn’t he make the hole all the way through to the interior where it is much warmer? I am busy and can’t fix the hole right away, so I briefly turn to the woodpecker, still in the tree haranguing me, and give him a half-hearted scolding of my own.
He doesn’t know it, but I can’t really be angry at the woodpecker. After all, he’s doing what he’s meant to do. Besides, who doesn’t love a woodpecker? They’re irresistibly striking birds whose features are etched in intricate patterns of black and white and red. Their zygodactyl feet are arranged with two toes pointing up and two pointing down, allowing them to climb like no other creature on earth. They also eat a large number of destructive and pesky insects and their larvae and they’re just fun birds to watch, lighting up an otherwise dull winter day.
Of course, woodpeckers are also really good at making holes in wood. I’ve made holes in wood with hammers, drills, chisels and axes. What I need steel and machinery to do, the woodpecker does with its head! That alone compels me to have respect for such an incredible creature.
I’m not the only person fascinated by a woodpecker’s ability to bash its face repeatedly into the trunk of an oak tree at high speed and not break its beak or neck, or to suffer a concussion. I recently read an article in the Missouri Conservationist Magazine about why they are able to do this. I leaned that in addition to having strong neck muscles and thick spongy skulls, woodpeckers have a specialized cavity within the skull that allows their extremely long tongues to completely wrap around the inside of their head. Ornithologists believe that the tongue actually acts as a kind of stabilizer and shock absorber for the skull and brain, protecting them from the violent pounding. Talk about amazing!
While woodpeckers possess impressive abilities, not everyone is quite as enthralled as I am about finding a bit of their handiwork on one of their buildings. This is especially true when the damage being done is to a home or another expensive structure.
Most woodpecker damage occurs during breeding season, when the males are establishing territories and nesting holes. These nuisance woodpeckers can be deterred by permanently sealing off their holes with thin metal sheeting nailed in place. Sometimes the woodpecker’s natural instinct to excavate a cavity will drive him to begin a new hole in the same area as the first. Vigilant monitoring the area for new activity is the first line of defense. Netting along eaves, shiny strips of plastic scare tape and offensive sounds are used as effective scare devices work well to ward off a persistent woodpecker. Keep in mind that killing the woodpecker is not an option. To do so is a serious federal offence that could bring stiff fines and jail time. If you just can’t get a handle on woodpecker damage, call your local wildlife control officer.
Later that afternoon, I return to the scene of the crime. This time I walk all around the well house looking for holes. In addition to the one I found earlier, I find another fresh hole on the opposite side and an older hole that the previous owner had patched with tin. I open the door and go inside. None of the holes penetrate the interior of the well house, but suddenly that doesn’t matter anymore. Littering the floor of the building are the carcasses of a hundred or more red paper wasps. I remembered them swarming all around the well house this fall and recently, Dean came out here on a cold day and flushed a bunch of them out from behind the insulation nailed to the door. As they slowly crawled out, he killed them with a fly swatter.
I hadn’t thought of it until now, but with that many wasps behind one piece of insulation on the door, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that there are many times more sheltering behind the insulation on the walls. It’s no longer a well-house, it’s a wasp-house – and the woodpecker knew this. With his keen ear, he heard them in there, shifting around as they tried to keep warm. Then he did exactly what he was designed to do – he drilled a hole in the wood and ate the wasps.
That bit of information was not only enlightening, but satisfying as well. Now that I know the woodpecker doesn’t actually want to move into my well house, he wants to eat the wasps we’ve been trying to get rid of without using poisonous insecticides. Besides, the well is still protected from the cold by the foam insulation and it would take a million holes to ruin the structure itself. While I know that an open woodpecker hole is like a beacon in the dark for all types of cavity dwellers, including other woodpeckers, birds, squirrels, wood rats and bats, I think this woodpecker will hang around to protect and defend his wasp mine against all comers. So, instead of nailing down the door to the cafeteria, I think I’ll take this opportunity to study the cheeky little fella and leave those holes exactly where they are until spring.
A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!