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Woodpeckers: Carpenters Of The Bird World

While schools are closed, we're creating a series of "Talk of Iowa" episodes that will be fun and educational for learners of all ages. Every Tuesday, we'll learn about Iowa wildlife, and every Thursday, we'll learn about Iowa history.  

On this edition of Talk of Iowa wildlife biologist Jim Pease will introduce listeners to "the carpenters of the bird world," more commonly known as woodpeckers. 

We're all familiar with the rat-a-tat-tat sounds of a woodpecker. The sound is called drumming and it's an important method of communication. Pease will help us understand what all the noise is about.

We'll learn about about different varieties of woodpeckers that live in Iowa and the habitat they depend on to survive. Woodpeckers are hole or cavity nesters and they have the tools needed to create their own cavities. That behavior also benefits a number of other species that nest in cavities, but don't have the ability to carve them out.

Birds like chickadees, brown creepers, nuthatches, wood ducks and bluebirds. Woodpeckers can make the sounds that they do, hunt and build their nests because of a variety of unusual evolutionary adaptations. Pease will explain how the beaks, tongues, heads, feet, and tails of woodpeckers make them perfectly suited to the strange lives that they lead.


  • cavity nester; a term that describes birds that build nests, lay eggs and raise young inside sheltered chambers or cavities
  • primary versus secondary cavity nesters; primary nesters typically build their nests in dead tree snags that the bird hollows out to put its eggs in. Secondary nesters are birds that are incapable of hollowing out trees.
  • zygomorphic; (of a bird's foot) having two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward.
  • drumming; a woodpecker's act of rapidly pecking on a resonant object to create a pattern of sound

Discussion questions & activities:

  • What do we think woodpeckers are trying to communicate with their drumming sound?
  • What adaptation makes it possible for woodpeckers to literally beat their heads against walls without hurting themselves?
  • Can you think of another animal with a unique adaptation that allows it to do something most other animals couldn't do? Hint: We talked about several species with unusual adaptations on our episode about Iowa's Furry Wetland Creatures.
  • Humans have some very special adaptations too, can you name one?


Wildlife DayEnvironment
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa