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.

Sapsucker drumming

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

A Day on Merganser Lake

Woodpeckers bang their bills on objects for a variety of reasons, such as looking for food, hollowing out a hole for nesting, and proclaiming their territory. To proclaim their territory, they find an object that is particularly loud, such as a hollow branch, side of a house or chimney flashing. This guy (you can tell it’s a guy from the red throat) found a hollow branch in my side yard for that purpose. I posted a photo of a female sapsucker (sans red throat) not too long ago and included a classic bit from The Honeymooners. Click here for that post.

Birds to brighten your day: May 19

Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a vine in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is one of the more underrated woodpeckers in New England, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t seen as often as downy, hairy or red-bellied woodpeckers or have the wow factor of flickers or pileated woodpeckers. It’s always a treat to see these handsome birds with an interesting eating habit. This is from allaboutbirds.org: “They feed at sapwells—neat rows of shallow holes they drill in tree bark. They lap up the sugary sap along with any insects that may get caught there.”

And, of course, there’s always this:

(Repeat text for context:  I’m running out of COVID-19 lockdown themes so from now until things get back to some semblance of normalcy, I will simply post my best photo from the previous day. You could say it fits because of its uncertainty and challenge. I’ll call the series “A Day on Merganser Lake,” even though that’s not the real name of the lake I live near in southwestern Connecticut, it’s just a nod to my favorite duck family.)

The sapsucker shown is a female. Males have red throats.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow-bellied sapsucker perches on a vine in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Brown Creeper and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker pay a visit

Photo by Chris Bosak Brown Creeper at base of tree.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Brown Creeper at base of tree.

At one point today a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was on the suet feeder and a Brown Creeper crept along the base of an adjacent tree. Neither are earth-shattering sightings, but both are rather unusual in my part of New England at Merganser Lake. In fact, it was the first time I had ever seen a sapsucker at one of my feeders. I even managed to get a decent photograph of the Brown Creeper, a species that can be tricky to shoot.

The photos accompanying this post, admittedly, don’t look that great. They are merely photos I took with my iPhone of the display screen of my camera. When I have more time I’ll get to a computer and download the photos, but for now the mediocre iPhone will have to do. Thanks for your patience. I wanted to post this as soon as possible as this is Great Backyard Bird Count weekend. It runs through Monday, so maybe this posting will inspire others to participate. For more information, click here.

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on suet feeder.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on suet feeder.