At first light on this beautiful spring morning, I arrived at a favorite spot in nearby Finger Lakes National Forest (near Trumansburg, NY). Sitting quietly at the high point in a large meadow, I watched the sun creep above the horizon, first casting orange-red rays on the treetops behind me, and then finally igniting the very spot on which I rested.
Listening carefully, I became aware of a number of songbirds … the sweet carol of a Robin, the vibrant notes of a Bluebird, the doublet phrases of a Brown Thrasher, the rumbly thumps of a ruffed grouse, and the cheerful ramble of a Song Sparrow. Soon a woodpecker began drumming in a hedgerow off to one side of the field. It’s drumroll was even-paced and rapid. I quickly moved in his direction and soon spotted a little Downy Woodpecker on a dead snag, pounding away to his heart’s delight against the gray-blue sky.
No having my video gear, I ran back to my car, retrieved my tripod and camera, and then rushed back to the drumming tree. The Downy was nowhere to be seen, but I set up my gear anyway, and waited for his return. Perhaps five minutes passed and suddenly he flew in, seemingly unconcerned that I was standing in full view about thirty feet away. The red patch on the back of his head, though somewhat dull, identified the drummer as a male (perhaps a first-year male?).
I managed to capture some pretty decent footage, but soon realized that my point-of-view was not optimal. After a minute or two, he flew off and I quickly maneuvered myself into a different position, and soon got better results. How nice it is to celebrate Downy’s antics through the video medium.
Several days later, I returned to the same spot with a friend. Not only did we watch the Downy drumming, we also heard a number of other woodpeckers sounding off, including Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. April is certainly an exciting month for the woodpecker clan, as males (and sometimes females) drum on resonant limbs or tree trunks to help define their territories and attract mates.
I am trying to learn to identify woodpeckers by their drumming. This is a perfect illustration of the sound and sight of a Downy!
Thank you Anne, though I must admit that I still have trouble distinguishing the “even-paced” drummers, because of the considerable variation caused by the substrate itself: Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker … I’m never quite sure which one I’m hearing, unless I’m already familiar with who lives in the immediate neighborhood. Maybe you’re better at it than me?
The easy ones, of course, are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Pileated. The former being uneven in pace and the latter trailing off in volume at the end. The weakness of Red-headed Woodpecker drums also helps with ID of that species, though again there’s much variability.
Why do woodpecker drum on gutters, or metal house trims? A lot of pileated woodpecker live in Venice, Florida, and I see them drumming away on metal posts, gutters, ect, a curiosity I have with this scene.
Many thanks Lang for sharing your sound tracks and videos along with articles written on nature’s wonders. Much appreciated. Connie
Connie: Drumming in woodpeckers is a communication signal similar in purpose and effect to bird song. The drummer finds a resonant object on which to drum (usually a dead branch, but also gutters, metals signs, etc.) and then pounds out his territorial message to all other woodpeckers within hearing range. Both sexes may drum, though males do most of it. When searching for food, woodpeckers tap with uneven rhythm, and often quite softly. In contrast, territorial drumming is a very loud and rapid series of beats, designed to carry a long distance.