Woodpeckers are found year-round throughout New Mexico. The most commonly seen are the smaller, 6.75-to-7.25-inch black and white downy and ladder-backed woodpeckers, and the much larger, 12.5 inch Northern flicker. All woodpeckers share unique features that set them apart from other bird species. Here are just a few of these characteristics.
Most perching birds have three toes, but woodpeckers have four toes. The woodpecker’s four toes are arranged in an “X” pattern with two set forward and two set backward. This allows them to securely cling to vertical surfaces like tree trunks. This is important because many woodpeckers search for food by moving head first up tree trunks and branches, probing the bark crevices for insects.
Two aptly named woodpeckers are the Williamson’s and red-naped sapsuckers. Sapsuckers create leaking sap by drilling rows of holes in tree bark. After drilling the holes, the sapsuckers return to the site to drink the sap and eat the insects that get caught in the sap.
The Northern flicker, unlike other woodpeckers, is usually found feeding on the ground. The flicker has a long, barbed tongue it uses to lap up ants.
Most woodpeckers will visit backyard birdfeeders and birdbaths. Suet, seed and nut cylinders along with bark butter (a spreadable suet) are the preferred foods of woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers are hard-headed. When excavating, woodpeckers can strike a tree trunk with their bill at speeds up to 15 mph. Woodpecker skulls are incredibly strong and lightweight. Their skulls have a reinforcing meshwork of bony support struts that absorb the impact of the blows.
Some woodpeckers have long tongues that wrap around the brain for added protection. Woodpecker bills are also designed to take a beating. The bills do wear down, but special cells at the tip of the bill constantly replace the lost material, keeping the bill strong.
All woodpecker tail feathers are strong and rigid. The tail bones, vertebrae and muscles are very large compared to other birds. This allows the woodpecker’s tail to serve as a prop when clinging to trees.
In spring many birds communicate by singing. Woodpeckers do not sing, but communicate by “drumming.” This is when the woodpecker repetitively bangs on a surface with its beak to establish territory and attract a mate. I once saw a Northern flicker “drumming” on the metal lid of a garbage dumpster.
A variety of woodpeckers can be seen year round in New Mexico. Be sure to listen and watch for these unique birds.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.