How Many Holes Would a Woodpecker Peck

Top Photo: Wood chips expelled from under-construction hole in willow.

I first noticed the wood chips scattered about on the ground. I then heard the unmistakable sound of a wood-pecking bird hard at work, rap, tap, tap…rap, tap, tap. Could it be a woodpecker? a nuthatch?

At first, I couldn’t see what was rapping and tapping away above me, that is, until the noisemaker stuck its head out of a hole twenty feet up in a willow snag on the edge of the wetlands pond. The bird tossed a bill full of wood chips my way. A male downy woodpecker was apparently making alterations to the inside of the cavity after having completed the entrance hole.

Male downy woodpecker about to enter hole.

Brown-headed nuthatches are the most frequently encountered hole-drilling birds I come across in the willows during winter. Each year I find three of the little sittidae at work on willow or loblolly pine (both soft woods). But that’s typically in February and March. I didn’t expect nuthatches this early. My intuition was correct.

One of three brown-headed nuthatches visiting the willow.

Brown-headed nuthatches did eventually show up, three of them, which is usually the number I see at museum nuthatch excavation sites. These three seemed interested in what was going on at the hole, but didn’t stick around long.

I also saw a couple of Carolina chickadees investigating the willow and its holes. One of the birds actually entered the “active” hole and was seen removing shavings.

Carolina chickadee investigates hole in willow.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but it would appear the woodpecker is the initial excavator, the nuthatches and chickadees potential residents should the woodpecker decide to move on elsewhere.

When going over the photos of the event I noticed there were three other holes within inches of the initial hole. Had the woodpecker drilled all these holes?

Four holes in total.

This is an unfolding story, already more than a week in the making. I’m curious as to who will use the holes, if at all. Are they all being excavated by the woodpecker? Are the nuthatches drilling beside the woodpecker hole when the downy is off taking a break? Wouldn’t they notice the other holes? Will the holes end up being one large cavity inside the willow trunk?

Woodpecker prepares to go on break,

Stay tuned for the answers to those and more questions which are sure to arise from further investigation and observation.

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