As tempting as it is to refer to the drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker or a Downy Woodpecker as a sign of spring, the truth is that both males and females drum at any time of year. However, there’s definitely an uptick at this time of year. Drumming rates are usually highest prior to nesting, lower during nesting, and increase again after young leave the nest.
Much of the drumming in late winter has to do with courtship. Woodpeckers drum to define territories, locate a mate, summon a mate and to solicit copulation, among other things. Males are already busy establishing and defending territories, so keep an ear tuned for the sound of a bill pounding repeatedly against a tree or other hard surface.
For those wishing to distinguish between Hairy and Downy Woodpecker drums, according to David Sibley the drum of a 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. Downy Woodpeckers drum at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drum frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum. (To hear their respective drums, go to http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/03/identifying-downy-and-hairy-woodpeckers-by-drumming-sounds/ ) (Photo: male Hairy Woodpecker)
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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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