While hundreds of children have asked about how much wood that woodchucks chuck, thanks to the old jingle, it's usually adults who wonder about what kind of wood that woodpeckers peck. The question usually comes up because a gardener is worried about her trees or a homeowner is worried about a home being pecked by woodpeckers. While experts can reassure you that woodpeckers do not kill trees and rarely do serious damage to houses, there is really no telling what kind of trees a woodpecker will or will not peck. In general, woodpeckers are territorial and tend to peck whatever trees are handy within that territory.
That woodpecker who is repeatedly rat-tat-tatting in your yard in springtime, as much as 8,000 to 12,000 times per day, is not doing so simply to annoy you. Woodpeckers generally want the same things you want: food, housing, and company. They peck for three reasons: to find food, to construct a nest and to communicate with other woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers primarily eat tree-dwelling or wood-boring insects. The primary reason they drill into trees is to extract insects on or inside the tree, such as wood-borers, and bark lice. While they prefer to dig into trees with softer wood, they will peck at any tree that contains the insects they seek to feed on.
These birds' bodies are uniquely adapted for getting their favorite meals. They have stout, chisel-like beaks perfect for pecking into wood, and a long tongue (up to 4 inches in some species) that is specially designed for extracting insects or sap from wood. Their short legs are also well adapted for grasping into tree branches and trunks, with two of their toes pointed backward to help the woodpecker grip. Woodpeckers also have stiff tail feathers that press against the tree surface to help them stay in place on a tree trunk.
Woodpeckers looking for food pick usually trees in their own territory. Scientists do not know yet know exactly how the birds sense that insects are inside a tree. i
North American woodpeckers are primarily cavity nesters that excavate their own nest cavities. Digging out cavities to raise their young is the second principal reason woodpeckers dig into wood.
Woodpeckers breed in the spring, and the nest cavities they create will usually hold between three to six eggs that hatch within a few weeks. It's pretty common for a breeding couple to have two broods each year. Both parents tend the young birds, and both sleep in cavities throughout the year.
Many species of woodpecker choose dead or dying trees as nesting areas because the wood is much softer than living wood. Pine and cedar are softer woods than oak and other hardwoods, and are therefore preferred trees for nesting. Woodpeckers can peck any tall object made of soft wood, including wooden house sidings.
Woodpeckers are territorial birds but they are also social. The third reason woodpeckers peck is to communicate with other birds. That incessant rhythmic tapping or repetitive drumming on wood and other hard surfaces is the bird's way of claiming territory and attracting or interacting with a mate.
While woodpeckers prefer soft wood for nesting, they like wood that resonates loudly for this drumming, and this usually means dead branches. Birds tend to drum on the same tree year after year. For communication drumming purposes, woodpeckers may pass up wood altogether in favor of metal objects around your house, such as television antennas, metal gutters, or metal rooftop ventilators. Both male and female woodpeckers drum, and it often begins early in the morning, much to the annoyance of homeowners.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.