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[This information was originally produced by Beverly Skinner, wildlife biologist at Innoko
National Wildlife Refuge (in west central Alaska), for radio broadcast on Public Radio stations
Woodpeckers are typically the only insect eating birds that can remain in interior Alaska in
the winter. They are highly specialized birds with hard, straight, chisel-like bills and a long
slender tongue tipped with a horny spear. Woodpeckers use their bill to drill holes in the bark of
sick or dead trees just large enough so their tongue can reach in and impale insect larvae hiding
inside. When not in use, the woodpecker's tongue, which is anchored at the base of the bill,
actually wraps itself around the back of the skull between the skull and the skin and waits to be
used the next time.
Along with this unique bill/tongue combination, woodpeckers also have interesting feet.
They typically have two toes facing forwards and two backwards, all equipped with sharp claws.
Their feet allow them to expertly climb trees while listening for their food under the bark, and to
hold on while using their bill to dig into the bark.
But the woodpecker's adaptations aren't done yet! Add stiff, spine-tipped pointed tail
feathers which are used by the woodpecker as a brace. Birds are able to lean back on their tail
feathers in order to literally throw their body into their work.
There are four species of woodpecker in our area. Downy and hairy woodpeckers, are both
listed as uncommon year round residents. Same too with the tree-toed woodpecker, which like
it's name states, only has three toes - one in front and two in back. Our most common
woodpecker, although still classified as rare, is the black-backed woodpecker. The black-backed
is also the largest of the four and is the only one with a yellow patch on his crown.
Even though woodpeckers are year round residents in interior Alaska, they aren't commonly
seen or heard any time of year. Most people are familiar with the woodpecker's loud territorial
drumming sounds during breeding season. But the quieter foraging hammering sounds made
year round are less often noticed.
For Alaska Naturally and the Innoko NWR, this is Beverly Skinner. Woodpeckers are
another example of a cavity nesters - that is - they lay their eggs in holes in trees. The common
practice of cutting down all the standing dead trees in an area for firewood hurts nesting
woodpeckers as well as many other birds and animals. Also woodpeckers do not cause healthy
trees to become infested with insects. Because it would be a waste of energy for them to drill in
healthy trees, woodpeckers pick out trees where they hear insect larvae under the bark eating.
Note: This is the MapCruzin.com archive of the FWS Arctic National Wildlife Refuge website. In December, 2001 FWS took this website offline, making it unavailable to the public. It includes 90 plus pages of information and many maps. As of 2006 the important information contained in this, the original "unsanitized" version of the FWS website, has yet to return to the internet, so we will continue to maintain it here as a permanent archive to help inform activists and concerned citizens. If you find any broken links, please report them to me at [email protected] and I will attempt to make the repairs. January, 2008 update - A small part of the original information that was present in 2001 has made it back into the current ANWR website. There is also an archive that contains a small amount of the original information, but it is not readily available from the main website.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Potential impacts of proposed oil and gas
development on the Arctic Refuge’s
coastal plain: Historical overview and
issues of concern. Web page of the Arctic National
17 January 2001. http://arctic.fws.gov/issues1.html
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