The woodpecker that you are familiar with will depend on where you live. Different species live in different parts of the world, except for Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar and the extreme polar regions. As such, the type of woodpecker you are more aware of will be geographically dependant and so I would encourage you look at the particular characteristics of the one local to you. This is particularly important because any generalisation about woodpeckers will be followed by an exception. For example, many are habitat specialists but some are opportunistic generalists, most live in forests and trees but some live on the ground, most are monogamous but others are gregarious and so on!
Aside: if you are using the animal totem tarot deck, the bird pictured is the pileated woodpecker
Every time I thought I found a generic woodpecker statement, I would quickly find an exception to the rule and this feels like a key message from the bird – nothing is black and white, there are always cases which don’t follow the rules and it is absolutely ok to be different.
Obviously a key aspect of the woodpecker is their endless pecking and I’ll get into that in more detail below but first let’s have a look at a few characteristics of these birds.
Woodpeckers have unique behaviour and this in turn gives them a distinctive role in the ecosystems. I have found them called keystone species, umbrella species and indicator species:
- Keystone species – species who play a major role in an ecosystem, helping to preserve it and affecting and influencing other organisms that live within it. For woodpeckers, this is by providing tree cavities which can then be as nests used by birds, bats, squirrels etc. In fact some animals can’t survive without the woodpecker.
- Umbrella species – species whose conservation can confer protection onto many other species.
- Indicator species – species whose presence demonstrates the quality of the environment
They are clearly important to the world around them and have been called the carpenters of the forest, probably comparable only to the beaver in terms of exploiting the environment. They are manipulating the physical environment to suit them and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resourceful, adaptable behaviour.
Most woodpeckers have four toes, arranged in such a way that helps them grasp branches and also lets them walk vertically up trees. They have long, narrow tongues – often three times the length of the bill – which are covered in backward facing barbs. This, combined with sticky saliva, helps them to pull insects out of trees.
These are just a couple of illustrations of their excellent adaptations. Others include their robust skeleton, their strong claws which act as crampons to help them cling to trees, stiff tail feathers which act as props to keep their bodies off the trees and also offer support. They have a gland at the base of their skull which secretes fluid to trap wood dust. They have narrow nostril slits, covered by bristles, to keep dust out. They have a membrane which protects their eyes from dust, a tough skin to protect against splinters as well as the chemical spray and bites of ants. Their heads are adapted to their drumming behaviour and offer protection against concussion and brain damage by absorbing the impact and their bill works a bit like a multipurpose tool.
If you wanted to design a creature fit for their lifestyle, I don’t think you’d get close to how well the woodpecker body works. In fact, scientists and engineers are looking at the woodpecker, for example, to inform helmet design.
In terms of their pecking, this behaviour has a few functions. They drum their bill on the tree to make holes to store acorns and nuts in. They communicate through drumming, using it to warn of danger, as a threat, to communicate with rivals and potential mates. It can be a deterrent and an invitation as well as a practical way of storing food. Practical feels like a crucial word here, so much of what the woodpecker does feels incredibly practical.
“People, ancient and modern, have been fascinated by the drumming of woodpeckers. It has often been used as a symbol and looked upon as mysterious, as involving great power, sometimes supernatural strength, and associated with spirits and a call to arms. In some cultures, drumming woodpeckers heralded the onset of the rainy season or warned of approaching storms.”
– Gerald Gorman
The drumming ties the woodpecker to rhythm, primitive music and historically, drumming has been used in rituals and ceremonies around birth, death and marriage. Drumming was also one of the first ways of communicating long distances.
Tapping against the tree trunk was said to duplicate the heartbeat of mother earth and the idea of rhythms connects to the idea of cycles, and hence the feminine. This will also link with ideas around creation, procreation, life and birth.
If we look to myths and legends, we find that the woodpecker’s drumming was associated with thunder, and hence Thor, in Norse mythology. For the Taino people, there was a sacred woodpecker who showed them how to tap and beat rhythms on primitive drums made from hollowed sections of logs. Without a doubt, rhythm and drumming is crucial to understanding the woodpecker.
“[The woodpecker] has fulfilled a variety of roles, being symbolically associated with fertility, security, strength, prophecy, magic, medicine, rhythm, the weather, carpentry and as a guardian of trees and woodlands. It has been a war-totem, a fire-bringer, a weather-forecaster and a boat-builder.”
– Gerald Gorman
They have an inconsistent role in folktales, sometimes they are crafty and wise but also naïve and foolish, generous but sometimes miserly, spiritual yet earthy, loyal and devoted but promiscuous, hero and villain, healer and creator but also destroyer, a good and bad omen. They are a paradox. For me this is about sitting with contradictions, making peace with conflicting feelings and ideas. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it can be very grounding to lean into that acceptance. Their ability to walk up and down trees suggests ultimate balance so it may be that you are out of sync right now.
“They can walk places where others cannot follow. These people can strike like lightning one minute and sit back and contemplate the breeze the next.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer
This quote might be about the walking up and down trees, but it could also be about the use of drums in shamanic practices designed to take the practitioner into the spirit world.
The woodpecker represents Silvanus and hence is associated with forests, trees and tree magic, but also regenerative and sexual magic.
“The woodpecker is integral to the natural heritage of our planet, but it is also part of our cultural heritage. In many cultures it was regarded as the spirit or god of the ancient forest, but today we threaten the woodpecker by destroying those same forests.”
– Gerald Gorman
As well as sexuality, woodpeckers have been associated with light, fire, water, power and divination all of which are primal concerns which for me ties into the idea that primal drumming.
A Lakota tale tells how the woodpecker taught a young man to carve a flute and he used it to woo the chief’s daughter. For the Cherokee people, they were symbols of manhood and bravery. A Mesopotamian myth had the woodpecker as the axe of Ishtar (a fertility goddess). When roman legions were marching into battle, hearing a woodpecker was seen as a sign of victory and the direction of their flight was used by augers to predict the outcome of events. These are all themes of love, sex and war and are reiterated by the woodpecker’s position as sacred to Ares, the god of war.
A couple of creation stories re-emphasise the link between the woodpecker and fertility and creation. The Surui people have a story which tells that people were trapped inside a rock and none of the birds could break it open and set them free, but the woodpecker could. In a myth from the Owambo people, people lived trapped inside a tree trunk and the woodpecker answered their cries for help and helped to free them.
We also find the woodpecker starring in a number of stories about fire, for example, a tale from Congo has a woodpecker pecking holes in the sky which became stars and a girl crawled through one and brought back fire.
As well as fire, they are often found in tales about water such as those about floods and drought. They were said to be able to forecast rain, sometimes summon it and because of the importance of rain to life, this ties back in again to the idea of fecundity, fertility and creation. Folknames for the woodpecker also tie it to the rain; rain bird, rain fowl, wet bird, weather hatcher, weather cock, storm cock, storm mare, pouring bird, snowing bird and so on.
There was a sharp contrast between how woodpeckers were viewed in Christian and animistic societies. We’ve already seen the association with life and birth and creation but for Christians, the woodpecker was seen as a heretic. Their probing into trees was interpreted as a search for evil in the hearts of everyone and the damage they inflicted was likened to satan weakening the soul.
In one story featuring Jesus, St Peter and an old lady, the latter was tuned turned into a woodpecker by god as a punishment for curiosity. In another version, she was turned into a woodpecker because she wasn’t generous. An Estonian legend says that when god created the world, he asked the birds to dig holes in the earth which would then fill with water and become rivers and lakes. The woodpecker refused and his punishment was to spend eternity digging holes in trees.
If you want to use the woodpecker for healing, then you might want to roast it to cure leprosy, dry the heart and set it in silver and gold to cure gout. The bill was said to soothe toothache and their eggs to cure TB. A red woodpecker feather in a child’s hair would ward off the evil eye and in France, eating the whole bird, feathers included, would protect against black magic.
Disclaimer, these may not be effective!
Woodpecker by Gerald Gorman
Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate
Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer