Connecticut is home to 7 species of woodpeckers that live in forests, woodlands, orchards, residential areas, and city parks throughout the state. An important part of the ecosystem, woodpeckers help control insect populations and create nest cavities that are used by other birds and mammals who cannot excavate the cavities themselves. Nuthatches, screech owls, kestrels, starlings, squirrels, flying squirrels, deer mice, and raccoons all use woodpecker tree cavities.
The pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker found in Connecticut (16-19 inches). It has a solid black back and a conspicuous red crest extending from its forehead to its nape. Males are larger than females and they have a red forehead, red crest, and scarlet mustache. Females have the red crest but a black forehead and black mustache.
Woodpeckers are well adapted to maneuvering around tree trunks searching for insects and spiders. Their toes—two facing forward, two facing backward—enable woodpeckers to grasp vertical tree trunks and their stiff tail feathers provide an extra measure of support. With their sturdy beaks, woodpeckers can bore holes into trees for feeding and chisel out cavities for nesting. Strong muscles at the base of the beak act as shock absorbers to absorb the pressure from the force of impact. Bristles lining their nostrils filter out dust and tiny wood chips. To extract insects from crevices and holes in trees, woodpeckers have a long, sticky tongue with a barbed end with which they can snag insects.
In spring, males drum on trees (as well as on metal eaves and gutters, house siding, poles, and trash cans) to announce their territory and attract a mate. Most species mate for a single season and share much of the work associated with nesting, including excavating a nest cavity, incubating eggs, and feeding young. Generally, woodpeckers lay a single clutch of white eggs, although those in southern states may raise two to three broods in a season. Often the male incubates the eggs at night and the female sits on the nest during the day. The eggs hatch in about 2 weeks. The young are born blind and featherless (altricial). Their eyes open in about 2 weeks and the young are ready to fledge (leave the nest) in about a month. Often the young will stay with the adults in family groups until the end of summer or early fall.
The pileated woodpecker makes an oblong-shaped hole for feeding and a round hole for nesting. Depending on the species, some woodpeckers prefer dead trees in which to excavate a nest while others choose live trees. Some species will re-use a nest cavity from year to year while others prefer to create a new one. Red-headed woodpeckers will use an existing cavity, not necessarily of their own making. There are even woodpeckers, including downy and hairy woodpeckers, Northern flickers, and red-headed woodpeckers, that will use a nest box if built to the proper specifications for that species.
While there is a great deal of habitat overlap among woodpecker species, there is relatively little competition for food and nesting resources as each species has its own niche. For example, downy and hairy woodpeckers occupy similar habitat but downy woodpeckers glean insects from bark crevices while hairy woodpeckers forage deeper into the tree trunk for wood-boring insects.
Predators, including hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons, and starlings, eat adult woodpeckers, nestlings, or woodpecker eggs.
Habitat loss poses the greatest threat to woodpeckers. While many species have adapted to suburban backyards and urban parks, some, such as the pileated woodpecker, need large tracts of forests in which to breed. Developers often cull dead trees from wood lots leaving species, such as the state-endangered red-headed woodpecker, without the dead and decaying trees they need to nest and raise their young. In addition, developed areas often encourage the presence of starlings, non-native birds that invariably out-compete and displace woodpeckers for nesting sites.
Many of Connecticut’s woodpeckers are frequent visitors at backyard bird feeders where they feed on suet, sunflower seeds, and peanut butter. You can encourage woodpeckers by providing nesting habitat, supplemental food at feeders, and shelter.
One of the easiest methods of controlling woodpeckers involves frightening the birds using visual deterrents supplemented with loud noise. It may be effective, although often temporarily, to hang shiny and flashy or threatening-looking objects that move, such as bird “flash” tape, bird control balloons, wind socks, pie plates, compact discs, or plastic twirlers. The use of stationary models are not usually effective as the woodpeckers quickly learn they are not “real” threats