Wednesday, March 12th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Banging one's head against a wall is not a pastime that appeals to most people. If we use the metaphorical meaning of the phrase, "banging your head against the wall" is frustrating and unproductive; if we use the literal meaning, it just plain hurts. But these are human interpretations and human preferences. Woodpeckers have a completely different outlook on this subject. For them, banging their head against a wall (well, a tree actually) is a way of life.

Hammering away with their chisel-like beaks, woodpeckers can advertise territorial boundaries, acquire a meal, or even build a place to raise their young. Specialized musculature in a woodpecker's head and neck provides shock absorption while rigid tail feathers afford them leverage against the trunk of a tree. Their opposable toes help them keep their grip on the bark while an elongated, barbed tongue enables them to skewer and extract insects from the holes they create. They really are an amazing group of birds. On March 5th, 2003, I felt fortunate to be able to restore the freedom of two individuals representing the two largest species of woodpeckers found in Washington State.

The first bird to go was a Northern Flicker. At 12-14 inches in length, The flicker is the second largest woodpecker in the state. They are most easily identified during flight by a conspicuous white rump patch and the striking red or yellow color on the underside of their wings and tail. Abundant and widespread, northern flickers are the most commonly seen woodpeckers in the greater Seattle area. They are partial to eating ants, and they can frequently be seen feeding on them on the ground near roadways.


Flight feather from a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

Flicker 03-0101 was brought to the PAWS Wildlife Center on February 2nd, 2003. He was found on the ground, but he wasn't there simply because he was looking for a meal. He had most likely been hit by a car and he had suffered a fractured femur, scapula and clavicle as a result. He was bandaged to immobilize his fractures, and he was prescribed cage rest to allow him time to heal. Eighteen days and several veterinarian checks later, the flicker was free of bandages and regaining his strength in an outdoor flight enclosure. All of his fractures had healed well, and he had regained full use of both his leg and his wing. By March 5th he was ready to go.

The flicker had originated from a residential neighborhood in Lynnwood, and I released him in well-wooded park near his point of origin. As I entered the park, I heard at least three flickers calling in the distance. I chose a spot near several tall firs, one partially dead, to release my patient. The flicker flew out of the transport box and landed on one of the nearby fir trees. As soon as he landed, he scooted around to the back side of the tree and out of my direct line of sight. He then cautiously stretched his neck out and peered around the trunk in my direction. At this point, a female flicker arrived on the scene. She landed on the side of the trunk nearest to me and began vocalizing softly. The flicker I had just released came around beside her and the two birds sized each other up briefly. I don't know what was communicated during that short interaction but the former PAWS patient did not seem inclined to continue the conversation. He began working his way up the 100 foot tree and disappeared into the canopy above. The female stayed behind and pecked halfheartedly at a small area of rotting wood before flying back in the direction from which she had come. I returned to my truck where a far larger woodpecker waited quietly for his turn to be set free.

About the size of a crow, the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in Washington State. It has an all black body with a bold white neck stripe and a bright red crest. In flight, broad white patches are visible on the undersides of the wings. It's easy to spot an area where a Pileated Woodpecker has fed. They leave large oval or rectangular holes in dead trees and, if the feeding activity was recent, you may see a scattering of woodchips around the base of the tree. Most woodpeckers chip away tiny bits of wood at a time, but under the beak of a pileated the wood comes off in chunks. As our recent patient demonstrated, it can be challenging to contain a Pileated Woodpecker in an outdoor flight enclosure that is primarily made of wood.

Pileated Woodpecker 03-0161 was admitted to the PAWS Wildlife Center on February 23, 2003. He was having a very bad day. It all started when he...well...banged his head against a wall. Nobody saw it happen, but from the hemorrhaging in both of his ears and the other symptoms of head trauma that he exhibited, it was determined that he had most likely flown headfirst into a window.


This photo was taken when Pileated Woodpecker 03-161 was placed in his outdoor cage...before he started remodeling it.

His bad luck continued after he struck the window and he was next attacked by a hawk (which he may have been trying to evade when he flew into the window). When the owners of the yard in which this was happening went outside to investigate the commotion, the hawk flew away and left the stunned woodpecker behind. At this point his luck finally changed and he was brought in to PAWS. Hopefully the still hungry hawk's luck picked up as well.

The woodpecker's injuries from the hawk were slight, and after spending a few days inside recovering from the head trauma, he was moved to a larger outdoor cage. After being placed in the wood-framed cage, the woodpecker immediately began to work on dismantling it. The cage had been reinforced with additional boards for just such a contingency, but he still managed to do a fair bit of damage before he was moved to his pre-release flight enclosure. In the four days or so that he spent in the flight enclosure, he managed to take significant chunks out of several different two-by-fours in the cage. He was flying very well so we decided to release him before he released himself.

I released the Pileated Woodpecker in Woodinville, in a greenbelt near the yard in which he was found. The release was short and sweet. He burst out of his transport carrier, and flying only about a foot off of the ground he headed for a nearby alder tree. Just before he reached the tree he rapidly gained about eight feet of altitude and came to a soft landing on the trunk. He clung to the trunk at a 90 degree angle to my position and stared at me for a full 10 seconds. He then pounded the bark in front of him twice with his bill and paused to look at me again. I averted my eyes, realizing that he was probably just waiting to see what the large predator staring at him was going to do, and he took the opportunity to fly away. I wished him well and hoped that from that day forward he would only bang his head against things he intended to.

Wildlife Release tally: February 12 to March 4, 2003

1 Thayer's Gull
1 Eastern Gray Squirrel
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Merlin
1 Glaucous-winged Gull
1 Cassin's Auklet
1 Raccoon
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
1 Northern Flicker
1 Pileated Woodpecker

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
39 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society