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Woodpeckers Drumming

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Non-vocal communication between woodpeckers has become apparent in the last week or so — hairy woodpeckers have started to hammer out bursts of steady staccato drum beats on nearby trees. Both male and female woodpeckers drum year round, but they do so most intensively from January to May, especially during the courtship and early nesting seasons which begin in March. Woodpeckers drum for a variety of reasons: defending territory, attracting a mate, maintaining contact with a mate, signaling readiness for copulation and summoning a mate from a distance. Woodpecker pairs also engage in duet drumming, which is thought to play a role in nest site selection and in promoting and maintaining the bond between mates.

If you are hearing but not seeing a woodpecker drumming, it is possible to identify the species by the pattern and pace of its drumming. According to ornithologist David Sibley, the drum of the Hairy Woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums. The Downy Woodpecker drums at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drums frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum. (Photo is of a female Hairy Woodpecker.)

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13 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    A lovely sound, on a tree, but they also sure seem to enjoy drumming on the trim, right near my bedroom window & have done significant damage on newer trim.

    December 29, 2016 at 7:14 am

    • Helen downing

      Have read that house pecking was because of calcium in the paint. I put out eggshells in feeders and it stopped. This was for bluejays, so don’t know if that might work for wp’s!

      December 29, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      • Alice Pratt

        Do you put “chunks of shells” in the feeder or make & grind them? I have a great deal of saved shells!

        December 29, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    • Helen downing

      Try putting eggshells in your feeder. Works for bluejays don’t know about wp’s!

      December 29, 2016 at 12:47 pm

  2. Reuben Rajala

    I was doing landscaping work in Sugar Hill, NH some years ago when a woodpecker drumming on top of a mailbox, at the end of the driveway and just behind, made me jump. The metal mailbox made far more noise than any tree that I’ve ever heard drummed on by a woodpecker.

    December 29, 2016 at 7:24 am

    • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are famous for finding metal signs, etc. to hammer on!

      December 29, 2016 at 2:59 pm

  3. So interesting, identifying by the drumming. I’ll have to pay attention to that. Thanks, Mary!

    December 29, 2016 at 8:47 am

  4. Kathie Fiveash

    Do the downy and hairy also get food by drumming, or is it only for communication? Do they excavate nest holes?

    December 29, 2016 at 9:08 am

    • Hi Kathie,
      They don’t drum to get food — though they do hammer away at trees to get insects, it isn’t that rapid repeating pattern that occurs when drumming. And yes, they excavate their nest holes, again, with methodical strikes/pecks, not a rapid repetitive pattern.

      December 29, 2016 at 10:44 am

  5. Judy and Chris Ross

    Just heard a Hairy this morning up here in Ryegate, VT! Your timing is perfect. Happy, healthy 2017, Mary!

    December 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

  6. Dudley Carlson

    Happy new year, Mary! Your posts are a high point of my days, with such wonderful details to digest or explore and fantastic photos. Though we’re in California, I’m an “eastern woodland Indian” at heart and love being connected through your thoughtful observations.

    December 29, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    • Thank you so much, Dudley, for your very kind words.

      December 29, 2016 at 3:00 pm

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