Non-vocal communication between birds of the same species has become apparent in the last week or so — downy 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 season 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 do engage in duet drumming , which is thought to play a role in nest site selection and in promoting and maintaining the bond between mates.
There is no mistaking what bird is responsible for the large holes that a pileated woodpecker makes in an attempt to gain access to the carpenter ants living within a tree. No other bird in North America is capable of excavating holes of this size. Pileated woodpeckers tend to work vertically, and you often find one hole drilled above another. A look inside these holes reveals the galleries that the ants create in order to travel to all parts of their nest located within the dead center of the tree. (Carpenter ants, while omnivorous, do not consume or digest wood; they merely tunnel through it.) A tree’s inner core provides structural support, but is not essential for the tree’s survival. This eastern hemlock’s cambium layer, just inside the bark, is very much alive and the tree may continue to live long after its center becomes hollow.
The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands. Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code. These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops. They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better. Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive. Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate. Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.
When I think of red-bellied woodpeckers, I think of the south, where their “churr-churr” call is relatively constant, and has been for many years. Over the past 100 years, like the cardinal, titmouse and mockingbird, this woodpecker has extended its breeding range northward. By the mid-90’s red-bellied woodpeckers had reached northern New England; 2001 marked the …first recorded breeding of red-bellied woodpeckers in Vermont (Brattleboro). While the origin of their common name appears fairly elusive, they do, in fact, have a blush of red on their bellies, if inspected at very close range. The red-bellied woodpecker is often mistaken for the red-headed woodpecker, for obvious reasons – they both have red heads. However, the back of the red-headed woodpecker is mostly black (red-bellied backs are black and white barred), and there is a large white patch on each wing of the red-headed. You must look closely at the red feathers of red-bellied woodpeckers to distinguish males from females. The male’s red feathers extend from the back of its neck (nape), cap and forehead down to the base of its bill. The female has red feathers on her nape and at the base of her bill, but not on her cap or forehead. Even though they’ve been around for the past decade, it is still a thrill to see this handsome bird. (Photograph is of a female red-bellied woodpecker sighted in Hartland, Vermont yesterday.)
If ever there was a species which defied the notion that males don’t participate enough in raising their offspring, it would be yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Without fail, the male parent keeps up with his mate in numbers of visits to their nesting hole, as well as the amount of food he collects and brings to the nest. He also partakes in nest cleansing. Often, when the male and female of a species’ plumage is similar, as in woodpeckers, you will find that that they share rearing responsibilities. The young of cavity nesters mature more slowly than open-nesters because their nest site is safer. They also leave the nest at a relatively later stage of development, when they can fly well, even though they have no room to practice flapping their wings.