Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2022

What the Winter Woodpecker Can Tell Us About Our North Four Corners-Forest Knolls Neighborhood

By Lisa Schamess

If you’ve spotted a few of the several species of woodpeckers we see around our neighborhoods lately, you’ll be happy to know their presence means good conditions for many other birds.  That’s because woodpeckers are the housing developers of the avian world.  While they are fairly solitary creatures themselves, nesting alone from a young age, the holes and widenings they create in dead trees for nesting are enormously useful to other, smaller, cavity dwellers such as nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

In my yard, I see three kinds of woodpeckers daily, although almost never in pairs:  the imposing Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the medium-sized Hairy Woodpecker, and the baby Downy Woodpecker.  That littlest one is my favorite, as it peeps and hops about its business in its snazzy checkerboard tailcoat.  The Red-Bellied will convince you that birds really are dinosaurs if you didn’t think so before, while the Hairy is a bit of a middle child, liked well enough but not necessarily getting much attention.

Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, woodpeckers do not cause much damage to healthy trees; if anything, they keep the population of potentially harmful insects down by consuming amazing quantities of grubs and beetle larva.  Woodpeckers prefer to do their major renovations to rotted or dead trees, called snags, which are unfortunately scarce in your typical suburban neighborhood.  Snags literally fall prey to human ideas about aesthetics or productive usefulness, but, if you happen to have a dying or dead tree that is not actively diseased, consider leaving it up.  You can lop off any potentially dangerous branches and leave the trunk and a few projecting branches for nesting birds.  You’ll be repaid in glorious sights, bird song, and knowing you are helping to protect many species now threatened by habitat destruction and climate change.

Downy Woodpecker

So anywhere you see a woodpecker, look for plenty of delightful small birds and songsters, from the tufted titmouse to the nuthatch to the chickadee (see the Smithsonian study done right here in Montgomery County that connects native plants to chickadee survival rates:  All are made more viable and comfortable by the presence of woodpeckers.

How to Feed the Woodpeckers (and their Bird Buddies)

Get more feeding tips and tons of learning resources from Project Feeder Watch (

[Lisa Schamess is a certified Weed Warrior in Montgomery County and is training with the Anacostia Watershed Society to become a Maryland Master Naturalist.  She lives on Loxford Terrace with her husband, son, and three extremely thoughtful cats.]   ■

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