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Please Don't Quote Me

By Caralee Aschenbrenner

So you think that creature scooting around the tree in the backyard is merely a woodpecker. But to be exact it’s a descendant of a king; the king of ancient Latium, that is. As legend had it, the goddess Circe had fallen in love with the king and made a play for him. He repulsed her advances, however.

Your classes in mythology would have taught you that she was no one to mess with and, indeed, remember that it was she who had turned Odysseus’ men into swine.

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In the case of King Pious, he was turned into a woodpecker to work all day drumming at trees or pole to her heart’s delight. The woodpecker family is now known as the Picidae!

That group is large with several subspecies. Besides woodpeckers of many sizes and shapes there are the handsome Flickers and Sapsuckers, too.

Their sizes include the small, familiar Downy Woodpecker which range throughout Illinois with six other kinds of woodpeckers. He is not to be confused with the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker. They are quite similar in looks but the Downy is only about six inches in length, Hairy an inch or so bigger with a larger bill, the main difference. Males of both sorts have a red spot on the back of their heads. Although their drumming calls are a bit different, be certain to look closely. Their range is about the same, Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland, Quebec to Manitoba. They bring animation to the chill stillness of winter.

Once in awhile you may see a Red-Headed or Red-Billed Woodpecker, both of which have red heads though the latter is stripey and the other has “patches” of black and white to distinguish it.


The Red-Bellied ranges across Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, north into Delaware and Lake Erie westward into Minnesota and South Dakota. The other breeds from the south of New England across Canada. It migrates in northern parts in the winter.

The Sapsucker is easily mistaken for a Red-Head or Red-Bellied because its markings are a mixture of the two—patches and stripes. It has a wide Midwestern range—from Missouri to Wisconsin and as far east as North Carolina to New England. Others in this group of feathered friends are worth looking for. We don’t see them as much as we used to, however.

The seven species of woodpeckers we see in Illinois, the Red-Head is most common because it ranges in open forests and in woodlots, suburbia and in rural habitat. They are somewhat of a loner-type, a bit reclusive. There are usually no big flocks of them as you see with other types. They like dead or dying trees, older utility poles from which they seek insects or grubs that eat away at the soft, dying wood.

Woodpeckers do like to assemble along the Mississippi River in the bottom lands where weeds and seeds might grow. They like a variety of foods. They especially like acorns so watch for woodpeckers in oak groves.

They do gather at bird feeders where you’ve put out suet. Um, suet and cracked corn.

If you feed them with such delights, they will return to familiar neighborhood haunts (they do!) so repeat their menus ... Berries, fruits, nuts, corn, all kinds of beetles, insects (some caught on the wing), flies and etc. But ESPECIALLY ACORNS! Remember.

If a proper tree is not available for nesting, the woodpecker will choose a utility pole or post. Believe it or not, they will drill a one and one-half inch diameter hole as much as eight to twenty-four feet down, the fine chips falling to the bottom for protection. The diameter of the hole is guideline for people building birdhouses. Larger birds then cannot fit into the hole and rob it of eggs or baby birds. The nesting chips wait for the eggs, uniformly white, to be laid on them. Four to seven eggs is common; but five is usual. Male and female take turns incubating the eggs for two weeks. Then they provide a steady diet for about four weeks. When leaving the nest, both parents teach life lessons and good habits.

You will see the woodpecker scooting up a tree or post, its stiff tail balancing it as it goes higher. The tail wedges itself into bark crevices for purchase and its four toes, two upward and two downward, to cling tightly to the wood. As it drills into the wood with its self-sharpening beak, its tongue, covered with a sticky saliva to help draw out the beetle or insect, pulls with all its mighty might. Like everything else in Nature, there are exceptions and the Woodpecker is like any other ... An exception. There are three-toed woodpeckers, the American and the Arctic.

The Arctic or Black-Backed, is about eight to nine inches in length, the other nine to ten inches. Both inhabit coniferous forests (cone-bearing trees) from Labrador to Manitoba and the northern New England United States.

Aberrant, too, in the Woodpecker world are the Pileated and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, the latter thought to be extinct. But is it?

Both resembling some left-over pre-historic creature, the Pileated is seventeen to nineteen and a half inches in length, a spectacular bird. My husband saw one about thirty years ago at the Palisades State Park. Its size, of course, drew his attention. Its objective was a dead tree about sixteen inches in diameter.

When it hit the top of the tree, its weight made the entire tree tremble on impact. Awesome. He has also seen them in Canada while fishing.

Even more strange because of its size, is the Ivory-Billed (the Pileated’s bill is dark in color.) Ivory-Billed in size is twenty inches. Magnificent. Peterson’s Bird Guide from which the two sketches are taken, states that when last seen was in Louisiana but just about two years ago several reliable bird watchers claim to have a good view of one, it’s recalled, probably in the Ozarks. It could be. The remote wilderness just might hide them. Let’s hope so! The other small sketch is in a book by Donald Stokes.

Examinations/experiments have found that the bill and skull of the woodpecker are constructed to absorb a great deal of shock. The brain is tightly packed into the skull with very little fluid surrounding it so it doesn’t “rattle” inside the skull. A muscular pad at the back of the lower jaw also absorbs shock. It’s believed that the self-sharpening bill in some woodpeckers can drum as many as twenty times a second!

In Olden Days, Some Places, the woodpeckers were called the “hewell” or “hew hole,” proper and convenient but we’d just as soon go with the story that King Picus being transformed into a bird was the actual name and metamorphosis. They are kingly in nature. Except that is, the rascally Woody the Woodpecker whose HA HA HA HA HA has made us laugh, almost since the cartoon was born.


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