Spring announced itself with a rat-tat-tatting sound the other day. I was out fairly early on a sunny but cold morning when I heard the sound of a woodpecker hammering away at something. The very rapid rate of the rat-tat-tat (about 15 hits per second) meant that this woodpecker was most likely “drumming”—in other words, announcing his presence to other woodpeckers, especially any females who might be interested in setting up housekeeping with him.
This hard-hitting bird helps the forest and other animals
Woodpeckers are in a family of birds (Picidae) that have strong bills with a chisel-like end that allow them to drill into trees looking for insects to eat. They then use long sticky tongues to get the insects out. Their heads and brains are specially adapted to allow them to take repeated heavy blows without suffering brain damage. Strong claws and a stiff tail help the woodpecker brace itself on a tree trunk while it's hammering.
This ability to find and eat tree-damaging insects makes woodpeckers an important contributor to forest health. (Once upon a time it was thought that woodpeckers hurt the trees they drilled, but it’s now known that the opposite is true. Our forests would be much less healthy without woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds.)
Woodpeckers also play a very important role helping other forest creatures find places to nest and raise young. Woodpeckers use their special bills to excavate holes in dead and dying trees, which the woodpeckers use for nesting. In later years, after the woodpeckers have abandoned the holes, animals such as squirrels and other birds such as chickadees take them over for their own nests. Without woodpeckers and the dead and dying trees they nest in, many animals would be homeless.
Common woodpeckers include the tiny Downy and the large Flicker
There are quite a lot of different woodpeckers seen in North America, but "backyard birders" most often see Downy woodpeckers and Hairy woodpeckers, both of which come to feeders. Like most woodpeckers, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are black and white with red on the head (at least in the males). The Downy woodpecker is quite small, only 16-18 cm (6-7 inches) long. The hairy woodpecker is much larger at 24-25 cm (9-10 inches).
Gardeners also see Flickers, which are large (30-33 cm) and easy to recognize because they are a sort of beige or buff color with red across the back of the head. On “yellow-shafted” flickers, which are most often seen in eastern North America, the underside of the tail and wings is golden yellow. On "red-shafted" flickers, most often seen in the West, these areas are brick red. Flickers are often seen feeding on the ground, where they are looking for ants, one of their favorite foods.
In my gardens on both the West and East coasts, I've been very fortunate to also see Pileated woodpeckers. These are very large (43-50 cm) birds with very noticeable red crest on the head. They resemble and also sound like the cartoon character “Woody Woodpecker”. The first time you hear the "ha ha ha ha ha" sound of a Piletated woodpecker, you'll know exactly where the cartoonists got the idea for Woody's famous call!
Pileated woodpeckers were once considered to be birds of old-growth forest but they seem to be adapting somewhat to life around humans. Because of their size, however, they are dependent on having large trees to nest in.
Why is this bird banging on my house?
At this time of year homeowners sometimes complain that woodpeckers are hammering on their homes. The woodpecker may be looking for insects, so the woodpecker may be doing you a favor by alerting you to a potential problem. If a woodpecker is looking for insects in your siding, the pecking sound will not be a steady beat. The woodpecker will tap on the siding then wait and listen for sounds that might indicate there are insects inside, drilling only if it thinks there might be food within.
But as I mentioned earlier, in spring woodpeckers also drum on hollow trees and other objects in order to make a loud noise. If they can’t find a hollow tree, they’ll look for something else that makes a satisfying sound—including a metal chimney on your house. Since a favorite time for drumming is early in the morning, homeowners whose chimneys are being used for these jam sessions can get pretty annoyed.
The best way to prevent woodpeckers from bothering your house is to leave plenty of dead or decaying trees (known as snags) in the landscape (as long as you can do so without creating a hazard). Like a lot of animals, woodpeckers are much less likely to bother humans if they can find what they need in nature. Snags are very important to a wide range of animals, so leaving them is one of the most important things anyone can do to help wildlife.
If you are not using a chimney, you can discourage a woodpecker from drumming on it by muffling the sound. This can be done by wrapping the chimney in burlap. (But only if you’re not using it!) Shiny mylar “scare tape” or “scare balloons”, which are available from many nurseries to keep birds away from fruit trees, or hanging aluminum pie pans will sometimes scare them off.
If all else fails, keep in mind that woodpeckers only practice their drumming during nesting season, so you will only have to put up with the noise for a month or two. The benefits woodpeckers bring to our forests and our fellow creatures is surely worth a short spell of early morning drumming. Personally I think it’s one of the cheeriest sounds I know, as it tells me that spring is definitely here.
Please note: I originally wrote a shorter version of this article for The Jazz-ine, an e-newsletter circulated in my part of Nova Scotia.