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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: The woodpeckers offer a window on the natural world

It’s undeniably true that some birds open up insights into how nature works, and the downy woodpecker is one of these.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Earlier this year – Jan. 2, to be exact – “Cindy” asked about birds that I might “feel drawn to spiritually.” I demurred. Although I mentioned meadowlark and downy woodpecker, I said that “I really don’t have that feeling for any specific bird.”

But the question has stuck with me.


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While I wouldn’t use the word “spiritual,” it’s undeniably true that some birds open up insights into how nature works, and the downy woodpecker is one of these.
We met another woodpecker here three weeks later, on Jan. 23. This is the pileated woodpecker, which I said has “WOW power.”

These two species represent the extreme of size among the woodpeckers, which form a good-sized clan: 22 living species in North America and one, the ivory-billed woodpecker, almost certainly extinct.


Of these, roughly a third occur in North Dakota, five throughout the year and two or three more as migrants. One, maybe two others are stragglers. You can throw in another couple of species for Minnesota, a woodsier state more compatible for woodpeckers than North Dakota.

All woodpeckers are dependent on trees to some degree. The wonder of woodpeckers is how each species has adapted to the available timber, and how the fate of each species is tied to those adaptations.

The ivory-billed woodpecker provides a vivid example. The ivory-billed was a denizen of deep, wooded swamps in the southern states. These were exploited for timber, and by the middle of the 20th Century, the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat had disappeared. Some hope remains that the bird survives in old-growth forests, but a diligent search has failed to turn them up.

The pileated woodpecker is the closest analog to the ivory-billed, but it chose dry, upland forests. These remain through much of the continent, though they, too, have been drastically reduced. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated is a bird of mature forests. It’s a pounder, quite capable of reducing a decaying tree to chips in a few hours.

The downy woodpecker has taken a dramatically different approach.

The downy is a bird of open woodlands, the kind that expanded across the country as farmsteads were cut out of forests, shelterbelts were planted across the plains, and urban parks and suburban backyards became an important part of the American landscape.

Unlike the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is gone (or at least extremely rare), and the pileated woodpecker, which is confined to mature forests, the downy woodpecker is frequent wherever there is timber, whether it is carefully tended or overgrown.

More remarkable still, the downy woodpecker often shares this habitat with a very similar species, the hairy woodpecker. Both species thrive because they use different foraging strategies. Hairy woodpeckers take to larger branches; downy woodpeckers smaller ones, including corn stocks and weeds.


What’s more, males and females use different strategies. The American Ornithologists’ Union notes, “This woodpecker has become a classic illustration of differential niche use by the sexes of a species: Males tend to forage more on smaller branches, females more on larger branches and trunks of trees.”

Both downy and hairy woodpeckers visit backyard feeders. I’ve had both throughout the winter. Perhaps that’s because my patch of Grand Forks County has grown into a woodpecker paradise. It’s a snarl of old shelterbelts, youngish trees that I’ve planted and a considerable forest of weeds that I leave standing into the winter season.

The species are very similar. Downy woodpeckers are smaller, though size is never definitive. Better is the shape of the bill. The downy is daintier – though still powerful.

The downy woodpeckers are more numerous; I’ve had as many as half a dozen on suet feeders in the backyard of our place west of Gilby, N.D.

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Lately, males and females have been appearing at the same time, and there’s even some interaction between males and females, a consequence of the stronger sunlight and the approach of mating season. I’d be listening for their courtship drumming – but I’m not inclined to lose an ear to frostbite.

It’s clear that a new season in the lives of birds, and of our planet, is approaching.


Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs In Season mug.jpg
Mike Jacobs

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