Newport This Week

The Woodpecker’s Drumbeat of Spring


Hairy woodpecker. (Photo by Peter Green)

Hairy woodpecker. (Photo by Peter Green)

There is a lot of construction going on in my neighborhood between the Cranston-Calvert conversion and the rehab of dilapidated houses into expensive real estate, so I wasn’t surprised that someone was using a nail gun early on a recent Sunday morning.

I was annoyed, but not surprised to hear “tat-tat-tat-tat-tat” over and over. Slowly, I realized it was not another contractor that had awoken me, but nature’s nail gun, a woodpecker.

Spring is the season for bird songs and woodpeckers drumming. All this noise is how a male bird establishes his territory and shows his prospective mate just how talented he can be.

Woodpeckers want to be heard at a distance, so they look for resonant places to drum, like a hollow tree, a metal chimney, or the perfect board on the side of your house. People often call the Audubon Society and ask, “How can I keep this woodpecker from pecking on my house?” We suggest all sorts of things, like hanging strips of shiny paper or old CDs that will blow in the wind and distract them.

Female red-bellied woodpecker. (Photo by Kevin Bernard)

Female red-bellied woodpecker. (Photo by Kevin Bernard)

But all you really need is patience. Once the woodpeckers have babies in the nest, the males will be too busy finding food for those bottomless appetites to drum enthusiastically anymore.

The good news is that if they are drumming at this time of year, it is most likely just to make noise. If they are drumming on your house at other times of year, you might have a bug problem, because woodpeckers also drill into trees and houses to find food in the form of insects that infest wood.

Downy woodpeckers are the smallest and most common of this head-banging group. Measuring about six inches, they are black and white, with a blocky head and a small pointed bill. You can tell the male by the patch of red on the back of his head, but they both make the descending whinnying call that can be heard in most island neighborhoods.

Downys will eat plant material, as well as bugs, and often visit feeders for suet and sunflower seeds. In winter, they are found in mixed flocks with chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, but now they are busy establishing their territory and excavating nest cavities in dead trees.

Hairy woodpecker. (Photo by Jason Major)

Hairy woodpecker. (Photo by Jason Major)

Just like telling crows from ravens, I tell new birders to look at a lot of downys and the day a hairy woodpecker shows up you will know it.

The hairy woodpecker is like a downy on steroids, with the same basic color pattern, but is larger in size at 10 inches, with a bigger bill and deeper call. Birders refer to them as cousins, but DNA studies have determined that, while they are color mimics, they split off from a common ancestor six million years ago, about the same time as chimps and humans parted ways.

Hairy woodpeckers are much less common than downys on the island because they like forests with mature trees, and that habitat is rare here. I have seen a hairy woodpecker at Miantonomi Park, Ballard Park and Albro Woods, but I have never seen a pair together.

The red-bellied woodpecker is a southern bird that has expanded its range over the past three decades and now inhabits much of southern New England. They are relatively pale birds, with fine black and white barring on their backs that is about the same size as a hairy, but without the blocky look. Both sexes have vivid red on the back of their neck, with the male’s red extending over his crown.

One of my pet peeves with the ornithological world is that some birds are just misnamed, and the red-bellied is one of them. Sometimes, you can see some rosy color on the belly, but you have to be in the right light. I can only assume that the person who named this bird was holding a dead specimen in one hand and the previously named red-headed woodpecker in the other.

The woodpecker with the best name is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The yellow-bellied part is exaggerated, but they do tap rows of small holes into the bark of trees and feed on the leaking sap. While these birds only migrate through Rhode Island, you can find their distinctive hole patterns on the trunks of oak, hickory and pine trees in our woodlands.

The northern flicker is a woodpecker with a maniacal call that makes me think of old jungle movies. These large brown-spotted woodpeckers often feed on the ground, using their big beaks to dig up ant and beetle nests, and their long, barbed tongues to lap up their meal.

Look for the white patch on their rump and the yellow-shafts of their wing feathers. Unlike other woodpeckers, flickers will migrate from northern breeding grounds to southern climes for the winter, so in the fall it is possible to find large groups of them on the islands. Now, like our other resident woodpeckers, they are busy excavating nest cavities in dead trees. Support woodpecker housing by leaving dead trees standing!

Woodpeckers bang their heads against trees an average of 12,000 times per day. Why do they not suffer headaches, concussions or brain injury? If you watch a woodpecker tapping, you will see the stiff tail is used as a prop, the short legs keep it close to the bark, the feet have two toes in front and two toes in back for stability and the chisel-like bill does the drilling.

What you can’t see is how the skull is designed to maximize the protection of the brain. The skull bones are thick and spongy to help absorb the shock, and the extensive hyoid bone and associated muscles surrounding the brain act like a seatbelt. Woodpeckers also vary the direction of their pecking and pause between rounds to give their brain a rest.

Speaking of rest, don’t start listening to birds or you’ll never get any.

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