By Bill Chaisson
I wake up between 5 and 6:30 a.m., depending how early the world lets me go to bed. Whatever time it is, the dog instantly would like to go for a walk, so out we go, in all weather. This morning was warm and wet; it had rained during the night and everything was dripping. A Blackburnian warbler was singing in the mature deciduous trees, somewhere halfway up into the canopy. A black-and-white warbler was sii-sii-siing in the hemlocks along the woods road. The yellowthroat witchity-ed by the brook. But otherwise, it was surprisingly quiet.
Last evening, before the rain, it had been much noisier. A wood thrush, the first I’ve heard in years, has taken up residence in the trees around the cabin. The chickadees, which have been quiet for weeks, exploded into shenanigans, letting loose both machine-gun calls and a few whistled fee-bees. A red-eyed vireo, which only started singing in the last week of May, now rarely stops. And so on, with the singing.
But last night there was some percussion amid the general chorus of melody. It was a rapping on a hollow tree trunk that began rapidly and then slowed into an uncertain series of taps and then stopped. This is the “song” of the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Woodpeckers drum for the same reason that songbirds sing: to announce the extent of their territory and their readiness to defend it (mostly against others of their kind, but some birds are more general in their intentions). As songbirds belt out melodies that are like their own personal national anthems, woodpeckers have a characteristic rhythm that identifies a species’ identity.
In addition to their stuttering drum pattern, sapsuckers also vocalize. The males emit a querulous, repeated “quee-ah” through the nesting season to supplement the percussive territorial defense. Sapsuckers are migratory; they arrived in my neighborhood in late April and were immediately vocal. The drumming began in early May. We have a good number of standing, barkless, long-dead trees on the property. With their brittle, bleached surfaces and soft interiors, they make excellent sounding boards.
The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a permanent resident. We have seen the male and female quite near the house through this past winter. Their deep, ovoid borings are ubiquitous in the surrounding forest. Because this is a bird nearly the size of a crow, what makes their drumming recognizable is the slow, deliberate thok of each blow. It sounds more like a small hammer striking wood than a bird’s bill. As with its appearance, it is hard to mistake the drumming of the pileated for that of another woodpecker. They drum early on in the breeding season to establish a territory and then tend to rely on their wild “kuk-kuk-kuk” cry to declare ownership. Indeed, I don’t think I have heard our local birds’ distinctive measured thok for a couple of weeks now.
The hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) is another permanent resident who was a regular at our feeder this winter. Their drum pattern has a steady, rapid pace that lasts for about a second. Allaboutbirds.org states that it tends to be about 26 beats, but I have not counted. Both male and female birds drum to defend their territory and do it through the breeding season. Unlike the sapsucker, I more often hear this sound pounded out on more solid wood, giving it a lower pitch and fuller tone than the flat whack of the sapsucker.
Like everything about the downy-hairy relationship, the drumming of the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is a scaled-down version of the hairy’s. Although it is a steady pace, it is more rapid, so that it almost blurs into a continuous sound. Because it is executed with comparably less force, it is higher in pitch as well.
Molecular genetic studies have revealed the downy to be a not very closely related mimic of the hairy (like viceroy and monarch butterflies). Its mimicry extends not just to the drumming pattern, but to the fact that both males and females do it through the breeding season. Both species also make a territorial call that has been described as a rattling whinny, but only the downy’s descends abruptly in pitch at the end.
Those are my local woodpeckers. I’m surprised we don’t have northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) because there is enough mown field and lawn to keep them happy. In theory they are permanent residents here, but I have not seen them in Wilmot during the winter. Their territorial cry is a more consistent and higher pitched version of the pileated and has a tendency to taper off in volume.
Flicker drumming is similar to that of the hairy, but slightly slower. The flicker is one of those species that has a tendency to drum on, shall we say, non-wood objects. These include road signs, the flashing on roof ridges, metal siding, or anything that they discover makes a loud, reverberant clang when they hammer it. Sapsuckers and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) also do this. I have not seen hairy, downy or pileated woodpeckers do so.
Red-bellied drumming is steady, but even slower than the flicker’s (about 19 beats/second). Their call is a “kwirr” sound with a rising inflection.
Two other woodpeckers are rare in New Hampshire. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) has a distinct drum pattern: paired hammer blows are followed by two or three downy-like staccato bursts. Its call resembles the red-bellied’s but is less emphatic. Black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) — found north of the White Mountains — drum slowly and deliberately for a few seconds, accelerating toward the end. They make a “rattle-snarl” call when agitated, but mostly they drum.
When you listen to a woodpecker drum, often, in the distance, you hear another drum back: “I’m here. You’re there. That’s a good thing.”