Our Percussionists

By Bob Engel
Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

I heard his drumming from about a mile away.  He was busy, and pounded out his even, slightly-soft-at-the-end drum role about every three minutes.  He’d found a dead but resonate dead oak branch.  Maybe both of us were feeling good about the day.  Certainly, both of us knew the days were longer…by about two hours now (a full two months after the Winter Solstice).  He gets his day length information from his own very good internal clock, not from the weather guy at WAMC.  As a result of the lengthening days, his testes are growing and pumping out testosterone.  He can’t help himself — he’s poisoned — and is rushing headlong into the time-honored rights of spring.  He wants us to know that he’s one tough hombre.  Any pileated woodpecker within about five miles knows that now.  

I saw my first Pileated Woodpecker on San Juan Island in the Puget Sound of Washington.  I had been directed to the remnants of a Revolutionary War British military camp.  The bird was in an old apple tree.  If you haven’t seen one, this is an impressive bird.  Size matters: pileated woodpeckers are almost the size of an American Crow.  Then there’s the flaming red crest and jet black body.  If you hear his vaguely maniacal call the impression is complete.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Wikipedia

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Wikipedia

When the dust finally settles by mid-April, we are blessed with our full complement of six nesting woodpecker species (near the Canadian border, one of ours drops out, but we might add one or even two more).  Down here in Windham County four are resident birds, and two migrate to the mid-Atlantic states and points south (a few stragglers hang on for a while).

Both of the migrants are conspicuous.  One, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does just that: it makes lots of rows of parallel holes into the cambium of both suburban and forest edge trees, imbibing the sugar-rich sap that glistens to the surface.  Apple trees are a favorite.  Younger trees can be completely girdled and killed.  These are noisy birds, often sounding like someone is strangling them.  Their drumming is unique because it’s irregular, and if you have a metal roof, they may have startled you because your roof makes their sound that much better (at least to the drummer).  I think they’re handsome birds, but Mallory does not like them one bit because they’ve killed a number of our plantings.

The other migrant is the Northern Flicker, often seen at the side of the road eating ants and other insects.  If you go anywhere outside, you’ll hear it’s loud, rapid wik-wik-wik-wik-wik.  This can be confused with the Pileated Woodpecker’s, but it’s not as loud, not as high-pitched, and lacks the maniacal quality of the bigger bird.  Separating their calls takes a while, at least it did for me.  There’s no drumming here.  And who knows “where” this bird is going.  It’s hardly a woodpecker anymore.

Hairy Woodpecker, Wikipedia

Hairy Woodpecker, Wikipedia

That leaves three more resident woodpeckers.  One of them is new to the area, spreading north from southern forests (I just saw a bunch of them on a “sea island” off the coast of S. Georgia).  This so-called Red-bellied Woodpecker may have just a tinge of red on the belly, but the head and/or nape can be ablaze with real, honest red.  It’s a Ladder-backed Woodpecker with alternating bands of black and white running up the back.  That back makes it a cinch to ID.  They look to be here to stay; we Audubon holiday bird counters have noted a handful of them since the late 90’s.  In the last five or seven years that number has climbed to near twenty.  Almost all of this has been in the greater banana belt around Brattleboro.  In Marlboro, I have seen just one and heard of one other.

That leaves two resident lookalikes, the larger Hairy and the smaller Downy.  Both show a lot of black and white, both drum (counterintuitively, the small Downy drums more slowly).  Both are found in mixed woods, but the Downy also strays into our burbs.  The Hairy talks a lot, and has a loud “peep” and a softer “whinnie.”  Both calls seem to be more common during the breeding season.  In our last dozen holiday winter counts, the Hairy is trending downward, while the Downy is at its historic level or a little higher.  Both are taking suet at our feeder this year in Marlboro.

So what do we have here?  Six real woodpeckers, five of whom beat their drums instead of singing, four of whom stay in place all year, and two, given their dietary peculiarities, have to move south during the cold (no sap; no ground-dwelling bugs).  All of them nest in tree cavities that they find or excavate.  Cavities allow an early breeding start if the food is there: in the case of Pileated Woodpeckers, cold, slow carpenter ant colonies in early to mid-decay snags provide that energy.  For me, it isn’t a forest without a full compliment of woodpeckers.  In much of Europe these birds are less evident than they are here — there, the wind section is fine, but the percussionists are just not in the orchestra.