by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County
The cold, snowy days we have been experiencing lately have been a hardship for all living creatures, animals and humans alike. In last month's column, I shared some suggestions for attracting and supporting our feathered friends by supplying water and shelter, and by offering a variety of foods in our backyard feeders. Our gifts are a much needed boost in helping to satisfy their great winter energy requirements. On cold and blustery days, it's hard to believe that these creatures are even able to survive out there in the elements!
In my backyard, many species of birds have been daily enthusiastic visitors to our bird-feeding station. While the early mornings and late afternoons seem to be the busy times, there is always a crowd of hungry competitors fluttering about all day long. They bump each other off the tray edges and seed ports in search of the perfect feeding perch. I have noticed that the suet feeders hanging among the seed trays have had a steady stream of visitors as well, particularly on the coldest days when the wind comes up. Among the most noticeable are those that are flashy black and white with splashes of red on or about their heads, namely, the woodpeckers.
There are twenty-two species of woodpeckers in the United States, seven of which reside in Illinois. They all belong to the order Piciformes and the family Picidae, which also includes the flickers and sapsuckers. Woodpeckers share several physical characteristics that make them well-suited to their interesting lifestyle. Their chisel-like bills are adapted for pecking or probing into wood, while their especially long tongues can be used to dislodge larvae or ants from their burrows in the wood or tree bark. They also have short legs and zygodactyl feet, with two toes facing forward and two sharp-clawed, backward-pointed toes that help them cling to tree trunks and branches. Sometimes, the outer rear toe may rotate to the side to facilitate even better climbing. Their stiff tail feathers serve as a supportive body prop on the tree trunks or branches as they work. The feathers that surround their nostrils filter the sawdust produced when drilling into wood. Other characteristics include strong neck muscles, a flexible, reinforced skull, and a protective cranium that encloses a tightly packed brain. Their thick skulls have special sacs that cushion the brain from impact. These features have evolved to help protect against the repeated shocks of hammering.
Woodpeckers range from seven to fifteen inches in length, depending on the species, and usually have brightly contrasting coloration. The males of most species have at least some red on their heads, and many of these birds have black and white stripes or bars. In most cases, identification of species by their markings is quite easy. And in most species, flight is usually undulating, with the wings folded against the body after each burst of flaps as they fly.
Because they are dependent on trees for shelter and food, woodpeckers are found mostly in or on the edge of wooded areas. They tend to nest in natural or preexisting cavities chiseled into tree trunks, branches, or other structures. Many species have adapted to nesting in human-made structures which may include wooden fence posts, utility poles, and buildings. Their ability to peck into trees in search of food or excavate nest cavities is well known. They tend to prefer snags or partially dead trees for nesting sites, and will often peck holes in trees and wood structures in search of insects beneath the surface. While most woodpeckers feed on tree-living or wood-boring insects, some, such as the northern flicker, will search for the majority of their food on mowed lawns and grassy areas, especially for ants. Others, such as the red-bellied woodpecker, will consume large amounts of plant material as well, such as native berries, fruit, nuts, and certain seeds. And when the sapsuckers drill their numerous rows of 1/4 inch holes in healthy trees, they are primarily after sap, as their name suggests, and the insects entrapped by it.
The members of the woodpecker family that are common in Illinois year-round include the northern flicker, the red-headed woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker, and the smaller downy and hairy woodpeckers. (These last two are similarly marked, and unless you have a trained eye, are difficult to tell apart if they are not next to each other to compare.) The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a small species that is the most migratory of the Illinois woodpeckers, and is a fairly common winter resident of southern Illinois, becoming less common as you travel northward in the state.
Those of us who live near wooded areas are likely to see woodpeckers as frequent visitors to our backyard feeders. Suet, a high-fat food made from animal or vegetable fat and sometimes mixed with assorted seeds, fruits, or nuts, is especially popular with these birds, but most will also be attracted to peanut butter, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. In the winter, we tend to see woodpeckers more frequently at the feeders because, as with all birds, their food requirements are so high during the cold months. Having a good, high-quality seed mix containing sunflower seeds along with one or several suet feeders is a sure-fire way to draw these secretive birds in a bit closer. Their show-stopping presence is a pleasure to watch as they cling tightly to the feeders and peck diligently to remove small chunks of suet or sunflower seeds. Knowing their elusive nature, it really is a special treat to see them up close.
Commercial suet blocks, balls, or logs are readily available wherever bird supplies are sold, but it is also very simple to make yourself. Try this easy recipe and see how quickly you can draw these fascinating creatures to your own backyard:
2 cups quick-cooking oats
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup lard
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
Combine the oats, cornmeal, flour and sugar in a large bowl. Melt the lard and peanut butter (can use microwave) and add to the dry ingredients. Mix well. Pour suet into a square pan about 2 inches deep, or into molds, or spread it directly on tree limbs. (This no-melt suet recipe may be used all year long.)