Trees speak many languages, their leaves whooshing
in summer and trunks creaking in winter. At the onset
of spring, trees become sounding boards for courtship.
Before the thrushes and warblers and sparrows arrive
to sing from branches and boughs, woodpeckers kick
off the spring chorus with a drumroll.
Although woodpeckers certainly vocalize, usually
with sharp calls or harsh chattering, drumming is one of
the most reliable early signs of spring – a proclamation
of territoriality and an advertisement to the opposite
Drumming is not to be confused with the arrhythmic
tapping we hear from woodpeckers (and other cavity
nesters like chickadees and nuthatches) as they excavate
nest sites or forage for insects in bark. No, the drumroll, performed by males and females alike, is a force of
nature – and fairly diagnostic to species. With a little
practice, you can identify woodpeckers just by their
An easy parlor trick, sure to impress your pals
in the sugarbush this spring, is to identify a distant
yellow-bellied sapsucker. Now returning in migration,
sapsuckers drum like no other woodpecker – not really
a roll, but more like Morse code: a stuttered opening,
and then steady tapping that slows in cadence and
wanders away. Sapsuckers begin with bravado and
end with reticence: Ta-tapity-tap … tap–tap–tap … tap
… tap ….
There is no such reserve in the drum of a pileated
woodpecker, our biggest head-banger, the one with the flaming
crest. Pileateds drum with power, and that makes their drumroll
relatively easy to distinguish. They often pound away high on a
snag or big tree, producing a deep, resonant roll that lasts for
three seconds or so. In a pileated’s drum, you often feel a hollow
tree’s girth and age.
From here, the identification gets a bit more difficult. Your
first real test in drumming class is to discern the drumrolls
of the most widespread and abundant woodpeckers on the
continent: downy and hairy. They look alike and they drum
alike: a classic rapid roll.
But the bigger of the two species, the hairy woodpecker,
drums faster and longer. A hairy’s drum lasts on average for a
full second, and includes about 26 beats (plus or minus a few) in
each rendition. The taps roll by so fast that you can just barely
discern each one.
The downy’s drumroll last about three-quarters of a second,
but with half as many beats – about 13 on average. Yes, it’s still a
drumroll, still fast. But in the downy’s performance (a staccato)
you can pick out each tap and sense a pause in between.
One other way to tell the two apart is that the downy seems
Story by Bryan Pfeiffer
BIRDS in focus
more enterprising. It generally offers you 9 to 16 drumrolls per
minute during breeding season, pausing only a few seconds
between each rendition. From the hairy woodpecker, you might
only hear half as many drumrolls per minute — about four to
nine of them.
I tend to lump our other common woodpeckers – the red-bellied woodpecker and northern flicker – into an “average
drummers” category, not particularly fast or slow or distinctive.
This makes them tougher to identify, but once you learn the
easier drums, you’ll start to recognize that these two rolls
are somewhat recognizable. Our two boreal woodpeckers
– American three-toed and black-backed – tend to drum at an
average pace, as well. But they sometimes prefer dead softwoods
for their broadcasts, so their drums often sound a bit hollow.
These are all subtle distinctions. But woodpeckers, like the
trees on which they tap, have distinctive voices. They shout
their identities year-round. If only the trees, in their rustling and
creaking, were as distinctive.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who
specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.
hairy woodpecker downy woodpecker 0.8 sec. 1 sec.