It happened again. Waking up to that beautiful music – the gentle, methodical, precisely timed … tapping. The placid notes could only be made by a downy woodpecker! With my eyes still closed, I can clearly picture this smallest of Midwestern woodpeckers with his striped black and white back, white downy breast, short black bill, and a small patch of red on the back of his neck, gently hammering his love song to a mate.
That is what woodpeckers do, you know. In the spring, not only do they begin their tapping to chip away at the bark of a special tree for a love nest, they also want their rhythmic sound to carry through the forest trees to a prospective mate. You can identify woodpeckers by the rhythm and decibel of their tapping. As a rule of thumb, the smaller they are – the faster and quieter the tapping. As they get bigger – the slower and louder.
Actually, when scientists thought that they discovered a small population of the thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2005, it was through the birds distinctive, loud, slow tapping that brought their attention. After audio recordings were shared, more scientists flocked to the area. Photos and videos of suspect sightings were shared throughout the ornithological world. Those ivory-billed woodpeckers are now on the endangered species list and are protected.
My husband and I are lucky we have hairy woodpeckers nesting here. They used to only visit in winter. Now, they stay year round. We also have red-bellied, and even red-headed woodpeckers, although I do not believe the red-headed woodpeckers nest in our woods.
We also have the king of all woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers. They are described in most field guides as being crow-sized with a wingspan of 29 inches. Their tapping is very slow and very loud. We see them year-round. I have some great photographs of two of our pileated on a large oak in our front yard while it’s snowing.
All woodpeckers make their nests in cavities they create, or sometimes find, in a tree or sometimes in an old post. Unfortunately, we have several woodpecker holes in the eaves of our house. All were created by red-bellied woodpeckers. I don’t know if they return, or new woodpeckers have claimed squatting rights the next spring, but even if they are using the same hole they insist on chipping away at it again. Very annoying!
Of course, woodpeckers don’t just tap on trees to attract a mate, or to build a cavity. That’s also how they get their dinner. All woodpeckers chip into the bark of trees to drive their barbed tongues into the hole they have just created to hook onto the delicious bug, drag it out, right into their mouth.
Downy woodpeckers always seem to be the earliest in spring to begin their melodious tapping. Perhaps because their taps are the quietest they need to get them in before the big guys begin, or maybe they want to claim the prize trees first. Maybe it’s because they’re small and have more energy. Whatever the reason, I sure enjoy waking to them early in March’s brisk mornings.
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.