Take a moment to consider the quirks of Minnesota’s tree-hammering birds.

“The downy or hairy woodpecker is the same length as the pileated woodpecker’s tongue,” said Alexander Watson, naturalist with the southern region division of parks and trails in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

He paused as that nugget of information sunk in. It always grabs attention at the bird talks Watson has given over the years. As the largest of Minnesota’s woodpecker family, the pileated’s tongue can stretch out 5 inches with several inches still inside — long enough that the bird has to wrap that excess tongue around its skull. The bonus? Think of it as a built-in helmet to buffer the force of the bird chiseling at a dead tree trunk.

While the northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker have headed south, now can be an ideal time to spot several other woodpeckers who tough it out. Their black-and-white banded wings, splashes of red feathers, and swooping flight pattern stand out against a typically white landscape while the staccato tat-tat, tat-a-tat slices across the hush of snowy days.

“People seem to be fascinated by owls, and then by woodpeckers,” said Watson. “[Pileated woodpeckers are] the size of a crow and incredibly loud.

“People say, ‘It’s prehistoric.’ I think it reminds them of a pterodactyl,” he said, regarding the pileateds’ unusual vocalizations.

Besides the remarkable length, pileated tongues are also customized with spikes to spear juicy grubs and to capture favorite insects. By comparison, the summertime northern flicker has a smooth tongue for eating ants from the ground, and the sapsucker lives up to its name seeking sweet sap and the bugs in it.

And those chiseled bills? They’re Mother Nature’s power tools and a curse for anyone trying to band woodpeckers for research. Watson joked that a pileated could carve a tree into a canoe.

The holes they leave behind in dead trees or branches, he said, often become nesting cavities for others, including bluebirds, swallows and screech owls. They like the protection, but can’t create their own cavities.

Another unique feature of woodpeckers — unusually stiff tail feathers — provide stability a little like a kickstand as a woodpecker climbs up and drills into a tree. They can be spotted pausing to cock their heads and listen for the bugs burrowed into the wood.

Anyone who has had a home with wood siding can relate to the curse of bug infestations that lure woodpeckers. But even homeowners with metal siding can be baffled when a woodpecker shows an interest. Instead of dinner, they’re the ones making the most noise, drumming with their bills to loudly and territorially claim their turf.

Finding the rare ones

Two Minnesota woodpeckers often rank on birders’ most-wanted list: The American three-toed and the black-backed. Each sports the only three-toed feet among North American land birds, plus a splash of gold on the heads of males. They prefer burnt-out areas and beetle-infested pine forests in Canada and Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region.

“They’re both highly sought-after among birders,” said Watson, who has helped hobbyists with 600 species on their bird lists to find these rare creatures. Birders who stay within Minnesota can spot roughly 200 species at Minnesota state parks with a keen eye and plenty of patience.

One of the best rewards is spotting the red-headed woodpecker, which sports a brilliant bright-scarlet head and neck rather than the usual modest streak of red.

“It’s an unbelievably beautiful bird,” Watson said. “It demands attention.”

Fueling a comeback

Chet Meyers, an avid birder for at least 40 years from south Minneapolis, would add “charismatic” to the list of red-headed woodpecker attributes. He didn’t know much about the bird about eight years ago because there wasn’t a lot of information, and its numbers had declined close to 90 percent in four decades as oak savanna and woodlots dwindled.

Meyers and other volunteers got together in 2007 through the Minnesota Audubon Society chapter to turn those numbers around with the Red-Headed Woodpecker Recovery Project (redheadrecovery.org). They look for ways to restore habitat and raise awareness on public land.

Hiking the rolling trails at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park south of Northfield is one good place to see the bird, as is the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel. Cedar Creek primarily serves as a research area, but birders can watch for the woodpeckers from their vehicles on the north end of Durant Street on the south side of Fish Lake or try the nearby public hiking trail or ski loop.

Last year, only one red-headed woodpecker was spotted in Cedar Creek during the winter. This year there are close to 80, said Meyers, who chairs the recovery group. “We’ve never had that many overwintering — ever,” he said.

How to help woodpeckers

Volunteers and staff at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman also have worked in the past two years to make its native oak savanna (part of a diverse 30,000 acres) more welcoming to the red-headed woodpecker.

“We do have a healthy population of woodpeckers in generation,” said Tony Hewitt, wildlife biologist at the refuge. “Probably the most abundant is the red-bellied woodpecker.”

Becoming more woodpecker-friendly, especially for red-headed ones, required removing trees that were choking out the oak savanna and the understory of brush and shrubs that impede the red-headed woodpeckers as they swoop from trees to grab flying insects. Refuge staff was able to document the first nesting pair of red-headed woodpeckers in 10 years, Meyers said.

Acorns also are important to both the red-headed and the red-bellied, which stash and cache them. If they have enough to last, they tend to stay for the winter.

Backyard birders can supplement woodpeckers’ diet with high-energy suet blocks, either from a store or homemade. Homemade suet made with melted beef fat or already rendered tallow can be mixed with birdseed, peanut butter or unsalted peanuts.

To help all woodpeckers thrive, it’s also important to leave some dead branches and dead tree trunks intact. While most homeowners hesitate to risk possible home damage (or a neighbor’s disapproval) from a large dead tree in the yard — especially during storm season — it’s helpful to leave at least a few limbs and the trunk as a “snag” or “wildlife tree.”

“If safety isn’t an issue, leave it,” Watson said. “It will become vital habitat for woodpeckers.”


Lisa Meyers McClintick is a freelance writer, photographer and guidebook author based in St. Cloud. lisamclintick.com