birdnote q&a: woodpecker drumming
‘I AM HERE. THIS IS MY TREE.’ That’s the message delivered in fast, percussive style from the woodsy garden perimeter each recent sunny day, in isolated dress rehearsals for the ritual drumming that will swell shortly. Woodpeckers are getting a jump on spring—and not just in my Northeast location, or only on trees, apparently.
“Yes—right here on the vent cap today,” came the affirmative reply to my “Any drumming there yet?” My friend Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program, enjoyed her first performance in Seattle February 11, 2015, only five days after mine. (Update: In 2016, my first performance came on February 7. In 2017, one pileated began, near the southwest edge of the garden, on Jan. 2. In 2018, one pileated in the woods to the east of the garden has been drumming nearly daily since New Year’s.) Gutters, siding, and even the occasional satellite dish: all fair game for sounding the tattoos, all good amplifiers.
As with every conversation with Ellen—the tour guide for our ongoing series of bird stories (browse all past installments)—a simple question yielded multiple lessons: what’s all the noise is about; who drums (just males, or females, too?), and how to tell the genders of species in the woodpecker family, the Picidae, apart.
what’s all the noise about?
WE MAY HEAR woodpeckers knocking on wood when carving holes in trees to create nest cavities or extract insect prey, but with actual drumming, the whacks are more methodical. Think jackhammer, not just hammer. If a woodpecker has chosen your house as its instrument of choice, you probably want to know whether they’re drumming or drilling or excavating.
Pileateds and other woodpeckers also excavate roosting cavities, places to spend the night or tuck into in winter. Excavating sounds heard in fall might just be for that purpose. Listen to more on that, or see additional photos of a pileated couple in their roosts.
Drilling holes in trunks calls for specialized tools, and woodpeckers have them. Big claws, for example, allow for gripping, with two toes pointing forward and two backward (known as a “zygodactyl foot,” unlike many songbirds’ three-and-one). A stiff tail, used like a prop, provides a third point of contact with the tree.
why don’t they get a headache?
WOODPECKERS have enlarged brain cases, positioning the brain above direct hammering-impact level, BirdNote explains. Specially structured frontal bones in the skull, plus a set of muscles, combine to create a shock absorber, too. It works like this.
bigtime drummer: the pileated
I’M BLESSED to be surrounded by prime pileated woodpecker habitat, and the drumming of those big birds (like the male above) is a welcome and impressive sound in season.
“I’m always amused to see one of those gigantic pileated woodpeckers flash through the yard,” says Ellen, “and even with that giant shadow, they don’t scare the little feeder birds. Those little birds just know that those big long beaks aren’t a problem for them the way a raptor would be.”
snags: the best wildlife trees of all
NO DISCUSSION of drumming would be complete without discussing snags, or wildlife trees, and how critical they are to the environment. They’re the tree of choice for many woodpeckers, including the red-headed woodpecker (below), and also many other species from birds to mammals, insects, and even the occasional reptile. Native to the East and Midwest, the red-headed woodpecker’s numbers have dropped by more than half since the 1960s, says BirdNote, largely through loss of suitable nesting habitat—because “unsightly” snags are cut down in the name of “development,” or for firewood.
Learn to cultivate snags in your garden, rather than destroy these precious resources.
is drumming, like bird song, mostly a male thing?
IN SONGBIRDS, the males do most of the singing (remember?). But from a brief review of woodpecker profiles on Cornell and Audubon sites and in books, I learned that neither drumming nor excavating is a male domain.
The downy woodpecker male will gradually approach the territory of the female after they take turns drumming, for example. Likewise hairy woodpecker males and females maintain separate winter territories, drumming in duet in late winter, then joining up in the female’s offseason haunts to nest.
In these two common species, plus the yellow-bellied sapsucker, Northern flicker, pileated, and well-named acorn woodpeckers (below, with an acorn in its mouth), both sexes help excavate the eventual nest cavity.
woodpeckers in flight
UNRELATED to drumming: Another thing woodpeckers generally have in common: they fly in a characteristically undulating or swooping style, making not straight lines but big scallops in the sky. (Finches do the same basic thing as woodpeckers–intersperse flapping wings with gliding, to bounce through the air–says Cornell’s All About Birds.)
is it a boy or a girl?
PROBABLY the most familiar woodpeckers are the near-lookalike downy and hairy species, widespread around the nation and frequenters of feeders, too. Their markings are deceptively similar, but their sizes–at 6ish inches and 7-10, respectively—distinguishes one from the other.
With both downy and hairy, it’s easy to tell males from females. He’s got a red patch on his crown; she doesn’t. It would be easy to assume that’s how it works with all woodpeckers, but nature isn’t that simple. (Downy male above; female below.)
Though most woodpecker species do have different plumage markings according to gender (meaning they are “sexually dichromatic”), it’s not always in the same spot. Males can be distinguished from females in one of several ways: by a moustache (called a “malar stripe” or whisker mark, too), or by a red patch on the crown or even throat area.
On the fantastic big pileated, for instance, it’s a red stripe on the cheek you’re looking for (like the bird in the photo farther up the page has). Males have it, but both sexes have a red crest (though the female’s doesn’t extend all the way to the front of the head).
Likewise, in the red-bellied woodpecker, the red on the female is just at the nape (back of the neck)—not all the way over the top of the head like the male’s. Both sexes of yellow-bellied sapsucker have a red crown, but the male also has red on his throat.
The Northern flicker male has a moustache (red or black, depending on the region of the country), and in the East, the yellow-shafted version has a red mark on the nape (back of neck)
This kind of needed detail is where my addiction to field guides comes in handy.
woody woodpecker was no pileated
IT’S EASY to assume that the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker of cartoon fame was a pileated, but in fact the industrious acorn woodpecker (below) is the archetype, says Ellen. They’re so named because a family group will store thousands of acorns over the course of a year, this BirdNote show on that industrious, adorable species reports.
more on woodpeckers
NEW WOODPECKER FIELD GUIDE: In 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Shunk, author of the then-new “Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers;” and here’s the link to that fun conversation about drumming, their lifestyles and more.
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(Photo credits: Copyright Greg Pond, Northern flicker; Tom Grey, acorn woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers; Gregg Thompson, pileated; red-headed woodpecker, Joanne Kamo; used with permission.)