What's Making a Racket? — January - February 1995

by Janice Orr

pileated woodpecker

This pileated woodpecker is drilling a hole in an old tree.

Have you ever seen a jackhammer break up a chunk of concrete? That's the way a woodpecker's head works, like a jackhammer, chopping a hole in a tree trunk.

The world has 200 species of woodpeckers. Nine species live in Minnesota. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and flickers leave for the winter, but the others live in our state year-round. This story introduces all but the northern three-toed and black-backed three-toed, which are seldom seen.

Woodpeckers are an important part of the forest. They hunt for insects by drilling holes in dead wood. Many of the insects they eat could harm trees. The nesting cavities woodpeckers dig in trees become homes for other creatures - bluebirds, chickadees, and squirrels.



woodpecker head   woodpecker claw

Even though the woodpecker pounds for hours at a time, its head does not get hurt. Strong neck muscles give the woodpecker the power to pound. Its hard, pointed bill has a sharp edge to chip wood. Like a helmet, a thick skull and extra muscles cushion the brain, so it does not get hurt by pounding.


Most birds have three toes in front and one at the back of each foot. Most woodpeckers have two toes in front and two in back. The extra toe in back helps the woodpecker grip tree bark and support itself as it travels along a tree trunk.

woodpecker tongue   woodpecker feather

A woodpecker can stick out its tongue farther than you can and farther than most birds. Its tongue stretches three times longer than the length of its bill. Its long tongue can reach deep into insect tunnels in tree trunks. Barbs on the tip of its tongue help a woodpecker grab insects. Barbs help a sapsucker lap up sap from trees.


A woodpecker's stiff tail feathers work like a kickstand on a bicycle. They brace the bird while it hammers away at a tree.


Have you ever heard a drumming sound when you walked in the woods? It could have been a woodpecker banging on a tree to scare away other woodpeckers.

Most woodpeckers choose to live in a certain part of the woods, and they try to keep other woodpeckers out of their territory by drumming fast and loud.

woodpecker beak

Wood chips and sawdust fly as the woodpecker pecks wood. Fine feathers over its nostrils keep out dust

red-headed woodpecker

Look for red-headed woodpeckers around farms, shade trees in town, and orchards.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Look for red-headed woodpeckers around farms, shade trees in town, and orchards, especially in the southern half of Minnesota. It is the only Minnesota woodpecker with an entirely red head. In the spring it digs a hole for nesting in live trees, dead stumps, fence posts, and telephone poles. It stockpiles acorns in tree cavities to eat later in the winter when food may be scarce.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are the biggest woodpeckers in North America. A pileated is as big as a crow - about 16 to 19 inches tall. It has a fire-engine-red crest of feathers atop its head. It is the only woodpecker with a crest. The male pileated also has a red mustache. The artist who drew the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker could have used a pileated woodpecker as a model.

You are most likely to see a pileated in thick forest near a river or lake. Look up high in tall trees, especially dead ones, and you might spot a large hole that a pair of pileated woodpeckers made in early spring to raise a brood of chicks. The parents sit on three or four glossy white eggs to keep them warm. After about 18 days, the eggs hatch. The blind, featherless hatchlings open their mouths and beg for food. Carpenter ants are a favorite food of pileated woodpeckers.

You can tell that pileated woodpeckers have worked in a woodland when you see large holes in dead trees.

downy woodpecker

This downy woodpecker spreads its wings to land on a tree trunk.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of Minnesota's woodpeckers. The 6- to 7-inch-long downy looks like a little hairy woodpecker. Only downy and hairy woodpeckers have a white back. To tell them apart, look for a smaller beak on the downy and little black marks on its white tail feathers.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpeckers live all over Minnesota. In late winter the male joins the female in a breeding territory. The two birds take turns digging out a nesting cavity. They might work only one week to make a hole in a rotting aspen tree. Harder wood might take up to three weeks to dig out.

You might spot a hairy woodpecker at a bird feeder. It is 8 to 10 inches long. The male has a red patch on the back of its head.

hairy woodpecker

The hairy woodpecker (top) is larger than the downy woodpecker (bottom).

red-bellied woodpecker

A red-bellied woodpecker, which isn't really red-bellied.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

You'll have to look closely to see any red on the belly of a red-bellied woodpecker. It's easier to spot this woodpecker by the zebralike stripes on its back. The male has a red cap. It usually lives in the southern half of the state.

The red-bellied eats mostly sunflower seeds, apples, corn, and acorns. With its amazingly long tongue, it pushes bits of food into holes and later goes back and eats them.

Common Flicker

Flickers have more than 100 other names,like pigeon woodpecker, wick-up (from the hiccup call it makes), and yellow-hammer. The male flicker has a black mark behind its bill. Both the male and female have a red patch on the back of their head. They live in open country, where ants make up half their diet. They go south in the winter to find ants. Flickers eat more ants than any other birds do.

A common flicker, also known as a pigeon woodpecker, wick-up, and yellow-hammer.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill holes in a row around tree trunks, creating sap "wells." In your yard you might see a sapsucker digging wells in a spruce or box elder tree. It eats the inner bark, then laps up the sap with its tongue. It also eats insects, usually the ones that get stuck in the sap. Hummingbirds, warblers, and many other birds sip sap from sapsucker wells.

Because tree sap stops running during the winter, the sapsucker can't eat, so it flies south to warmer places, such as the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have yellow bellies and a red forehead. Females have a white patch on the throat. Males have a red throat patch. These birds are common in most of the state.

Bird Work

Laura Erickson spent part of her summer raising baby flickers. Their nesting tree had blown down in a storm, breaking apart their nesting hole. Laura kept the four little flickers for a week in her house in Duluth. But as soon as the birds were ready to fly, she brought them out to woodduck house in her back yard. "One beat of their powerful wings would have sent them crashing into my living room wall," Laura says.

It is against the law for most people to keep wild birds, but Laura is a licensed bird rehabilitator. She cares for sick and injured birds and returns them to the wild when they get well.

Before she learned how to care for birds, Laura studied birds at Michigan State University. And she spent a lot of time watching birds. Laura learned so much that in 1986 she began talking about birds on public radio. Her radio show is called For the Birds. That's also the name of her bird book, which tells facts and stories about all kinds of birds.

As a mother and Scout leader, Laura teaches children about birds.

Enjoying Woodpeckers

Try attracting woodpeckers to your back yard. You'll have fun, and you'll also be helping the birds. Put out suet and peanut feeders year-round. Build a nest box. You can get plans from Woodworking for Wildlife.

Pecking Order

Sometimes woodpeckers peck at wood on a house or make a lot of noise drumming on empty garbage cans or tin chimneys. For ideas on how to control them, send one dollar and a self-addressed, stamped business envelope to Woodpecker Packet, DNR Nongame Wildlife, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155. No calls, please.

Are you ready for the Rat-a-tat-tat Quiz?

Janice Welsh, author of this story, is coordinator of Project WILD, a DNR wildlife conservation program for schools.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the January-February 1995 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.