For the Birds: Woodpeckers and rhythm

Photo by Chris Bosak A male yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a dead tree branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

I am quite sure I am not his intended target, but when the yellow-bellied sapsucker drums on the hollow branch in my side yard, I come running. I mentioned in last week’s column that I have a yellow-bellied sapsucker that drums on a branch in my side yard and a pileated woodpecker that drums on a branch in the backyard. Woodpeckers often drum on objects such as hollow branches, the sides of houses, gutters, and chimney flashings. They pick objects such as these because the noise resonates far and wide. This drumming is done to attract mates or announce territory. Obviously, they do not tap on gutters or chimney flashings to find food or make homes.

They may pick hollow branches to make homes, naturally, but the territorial and mate-attracting drumming is more rhythmic and the cadence is specific to individual woodpecker species.

I also mentioned in last week’s column that I was impressed the first time I saw a birdwatcher identify the type of woodpecker from its drumming in the distance. I still do not have that skill down very well, but I am getting a lot of practice distinguishing the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the pileated woodpecker. Just as it is exciting when a bird chooses your property to eat, drink, or make a home, it is also exciting when a woodpecker chooses a branch on your property for its drumming.

It may not be so exciting when they return to your siding, gutter or chimney flashing for this purpose, however. If this is happening, there are measures you can take to try to stop it. Of course, nothing is a guarantee when we are talking about wildlife.

There are literally dozens of products on the market to deter woodpeckers from tapping on your house. Do a simple Internet search for “stop woodpecker damage” and they will all pop up.

New England has several woodpecker types. Most of New England has the aforementioned yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker, as well as downy and hairy woodpecker, and northern flicker. Southern New England and increasingly the middle part of the region also has red-bellied woodpecker. The northern part of New England features the black-backed woodpecker and, to a lesser degree, the American three-toed woodpecker.

The red-headed woodpecker is also an occasional sighting in New England. Many people mistakenly call the red-bellied woodpecker the red-headed woodpecker because it does indeed have a red head, or at least mostly red. The red-bellied woodpecker has a faint pinkish wash on the belly, which gives it its name. The red-headed woodpecker, indeed, has a fully red head. They are more common south and west of New England but, as I mentioned, are occasionally seen in our region.

This is just my own theory, and it hasn’t been scientifically proven to my knowledge, but the dreaded diseases that have ravaged so many of our tree species have greatly benefited woodpeckers. They build their nests in dead trees and branches, and sadly, between hemlock woolly adelgid, chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and locust borers, they have plenty of dead trees to choose from. And, of course, lots of drumming branches.

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