Saturday, February 28, 2009

Observing a woodpecker’s tail and toes

Our sweet female Downy Woodpecker was outside our family room window in the crabapple tree this morning. Unfortunately, all the crabapples are now gone...they were devoured during the big snowfall a couple of weeks ago. To entice the birds back to the window, I added a small feeder with a mix of black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and safflower seeds. The chickadees, always being the first to check out a new feeder, showed up today, and the female downy who hangs with the chickadees followed shortly after.

Mrs. Downy studies the sunflower seed feeder...

Beak Bit
Why are woodpeckers’ tails so strong?
Woodpeckers have unique tail feathers. If you watch a woodpecker climbing up a tree (they rarely climb down), you will notice he uses his tail feathers as a prop for support. Have you ever seen a chickadee doing that, or any other perching bird? It’s because woodpeckers have very stiff, pointed tail feathers, and their lower vertebrae and supporting muscles are much bigger and stronger than those of perching birds.

This photo shows the stiff, pointy tail feathers
so unlike those found in perching birds.

I love the tail action in this photo. It clearly
shows how a woodpecker uses its tail as a prop
to help support its weight as it clings to a tree.

The woodpecker's strong, supporting tail works in conjunction with its toes, which are also quite unique. Perching birds have three toes forward and one toe back, but woodpeckers have two toes forward and two toes back, an adaptation that enables them to cling to the bark of trees very well. Without the combination of toes and tail feathers, a woodpecker would not be able to hollow out a hole in a tree for a nest, dig behind bark for insects to eat, or drum on a tree with its bill to create that beautiful woodland sound (which is another unique adaptation that would make a nice Beak Bit post in the future...).

Look at that cute little bill. We will
definitely have to learn more about it.


Roy said...

What amazed me when I first learned of it was that Woodpeckers don't just hammer on trees to get at food, they also "drum" to declare territory and attract a mate. One of my field guides actually calls it "ritual drumming." Amazing!

Kelly said...

I's their love song! I want to read a little more about that.

Kallen305 said...

Great info and a nice picture of the female downy. I saw one yesterday whose tail was curled around a branch and I thought it was a nuthatch because it looked so small. Now I know it was using its tail for balance. Very cool Thanks

Warren Baker said...

How big are those woodpeckers kelly ? Maybe it's worth impaling a few apples on the tree for them.
PS Thanks for the congrats on winning the Feb. Bird Count!

Laure Ferlita said...

I've listened to woodpecker's for years and had no idea it was a territorial/love song thing! How neat to learn the why behind this. Really enjoying your blog - your photos are outstanding!

Kathy said...

Kelly that is a beautiful little bird. Interesting about how they use their tails to hold on to the tree. Had never heard that.

Mary said...

I love watching the downys and the way they use the tail for support and balance is neat. Lovely shots of it!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

I'm working on Woodpecker tails, too. I actually found a handfull of feathers--they're really cool up close!
You have a lot of helpful info here!

Kelly said...

Kallen...Thanks. I love watching the woodpeckers using their tails. Everything about a woodpecker is amazing. I really want to learn more about their bills.

Warren...Downies are small...that's why they are so darn cute (and their faces and coloring), usually 6-7 inches (14-17 cm). They really come to shelled peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds at my house.

Laure...Thank you! I really want to learn more about their territorial drumming and their bill construction. I've always been amazed at how rapidly they drum against the bark...and their lack of headaches!

Kathy...Thank you! It's fun to learn about all the adaptions. Amazing, really.

Mary...thanks!! ...and thank you for stopping by. I have a soft spot for downy woodpeckers too. They are so cute.

Nina...I can't wait to see your post about woodpeckers. With your style, it will be beautiful and interesting! I love finding feathers on the ground and then trying to figure out which bird they belong to. Finding a woodpecker's tail feathers would be very cool!!

Steve B said...

Wonderful post and smartly illustrated!

Larry said...

Nice informative description with detailed photos to go with it.-They seem to be the most tolerant of human's too. Great little birds.
Perhaps there should be a superhero based on a woodpecker.
Imagine the interesting powers he/she would possess!

Eric Ripma said...

Great information and wonderful photos.

The Early Birder said...

Very informative & cleverly illustrated Kelly.
In the UK (& Europe) we also have Treecreepers (Cherthidae)that also use their tails. For pics check out Richard Steels blog:
or use the link via my site.

Kelly said...

Steve...Thank you!

Larry...Haha! That could be very funny...Jack Hammerhead...


Early Birder...thanks for the link. I'm heading over there now. We have Brown Creepers similar to your Tree Creepers.

javieth said...

I the toes take care, so i usually like to be aware about the take care of the toes and i like to read about it. I´m sure the toes is the sexiest part of our body. I usually like to touch the toes of my body, it say the massage can exited the man. but now he to buy viagra and his mood has been an amazing change.

Guille gmmv80 said...

Hi. Beatiful pictures!. I want to share this picture with you, I think you will like too. Its about a very small woodpecker from Uruguay ( Picumnus nebulosus )

Carpintero Ocráceo

Greetings from southamerica.
después de la tormenta