Woodpeckers as Keystone Species

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.


With steady, resounding whacks of its chisel-like bill, a woodpecker excavates a nesting cavity in a tree. A pair of woodpeckers will use the hole for one nesting season, carving out a new one the following spring. But unlike most birds whose nests are good for just one season, the woodpecker’s cavity will have a long and useful career.

Woodpeckers, master carpenters of the bird world, are called “keystone species” for their crucial role in creating habitat suited to other woodland wildlife. Abandoned woodpecker nest-holes become nests or roosts for small owls, like this Northern Saw-Whet Owl or cavity-nesting Wood Ducks.

Swifts, bluebirds, swallows, wrens, and other birds, as well as many mammals, make use of these holes. The snags can become multi-level condominiums for a whole host of wildlife. A venerable, dead tree, broken off at the top and perforated with multiple cavities, may actually be one of the most valuable trees in the forest.

It’s satisfying to know that some simple choices can improve habitat for birds. For example, if you have to cut down a tree, consider leaving part of it as a snag. You’ll be helping the woodpeckers, and all the species that depend on them for homes.
For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.

Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Pileated Woodpecker excavating and call of Northern Saw-whet Owl recorded by G.A. Keller. Male Wood Duck call recorded by G.B. Reynard. Territorial call of Northern Flicker recorded by W.V. Ward. Producer: John Kessler. Executive Producer: Chris Peterson. © 2013 Tune In to Nature.org August 2013. Narrator: Mary McCann