Lathrop’s Hard-Headed Residents

By Barbara Walvoord

(From Lathrop Lamp Post Feb. 9, 2017)

Some of Lathrop’s human residents may be a bit hard-headed, truth to tell, but if you walk on our land these days you may hear our most hard-headed resident–the pileated wood pecker, whose loud drumming or whinnying cry rings through the woods.  Crow-size, it’s America’s largest woodpecker.  Sharon and I were lucky to see one the other day, energetically pounding away at a dead tree behind our house, it’s red-crested head whamming back and forth, and wood chips flying all around.

Pileated woodpecker holes on east campus
Pileated woodpecker holes on east campus

Many residents are drawn to Lathrop because of our beautiful forests, and the same is true for our pileated woodpeckers. However, to a woodpecker, the most beautiful tree is a dead one with lots of carpenter ants and other insects burrowed into it.

Chipping into a piece of wood requires a chisel with a hammer behind it, and that’s a good description of a pileated woodpecker’s head. A woodpecker leans its long neck far back and then slams it into the tree, using its feet to hold steady and to increase the force of the blow. Unlike football players, it doesn’t get concussions from this banging.

As long as you have this hammer-and-chisel head, you might as well use it for lots of things, so woodpeckers use their heads to drum out messages to one another (“stay out of my territory!”) and, each year, to chip out a new nest in a tree trunk–a process that can take  up to 6 weeks, with both of them working. Last year’s nest doesn’t go to waste–it may be used by songbirds, owls, ducks, raccoons, and others. Yesterday’s hole, with the insects left behind in it, may feed other woodpeckers and smaller birds such as wrens.  “Ecologically, the entire woodpecker family is important to the wellbeing of many other bird species,” notes Wikipedia.

When we protect our Lathrop trees and when we nurture the native plants our insects need, we make our Lathrop forests inviting both to us and to these amazing hard-headed residents.

You can hear a pileated woodpecker at


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