I’m a lazy birder. My birding-by-ear abilities are good enough that I often don’t bother to look at the bird. This skill comes from years of getting fooled. Fool me long enough, and eventually I start to catch on. It’s not just bird songs. I can often identify call notes and other bird sounds. I’m telling you all this so that you will understand why nuthatches drive me nuts.
Whenever I hear tapping, I like to guess which woodpecker is doing it. This is a good time of year to try it yourself. Woodpeckers get an early start on the nesting season. There’s a lot of drumming going on right now, which is the rapid striking of the tree as a territorial display. So here are some tips.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers both have very even drums, but the downy is slower. You get the sense that you can almost count each individual tap of a downy woodpecker drumming. Hairy woodpeckers drum so fast that counting the taps is impossible. You’ll hear a lot of yellow-bellied sapsuckers drumming this time of year, too. They start with a burst of five or six taps that degenerates into a ragged, uneven finish, like Morse code. These guys like to drum on metal, which they especially seem to enjoy doing at daybreak outside your bedroom window. The early bird gets the mate.
The massive pileated woodpecker has a big booming drum that tapers off. It sounds like the acceleration of a dropped ping pong ball, getting faster and quieter toward the end. The drumming of a northern flicker is similar, but it is not quite as booming and it doesn’t taper off as noticeably. Both are enough alike that I can’t always be certain, but the birds usually help me out. Whenever both woodpeckers are in the mood to drum, they are also likely to call. Besides, flickers don’t drum as often, so if you guess that a booming drum is a pileated woodpecker, usually you’ll be right.
Our two rare woodpeckers also have distinctive drumming patterns. The black-backed woodpecker sounds much like a hairy woodpecker, but with a slight tapering off at the end. The American three-toed woodpecker is unlike anything else. It’s a slow, booming, uneven tympani. The only time I’ve ever heard it was last year just west of Baxter State Park. It was louder than I expected and unmistakably awesome.
After you’ve practiced on the drumming, you can start on the hammering. Yes, you can even tell from the sound which woodpecker is striking the tree to look for food. Most woodpeckers hit the tree directly from the front. This produces a crisp knock. Pileated woodpeckers are so large that the knock frequently sounds like a hatchet blow. Hairy woodpeckers produce a sharp knocking sound when striking the tree. The tap of a smaller downy woodpecker is quieter, more subtle. Sapsuckers are very delicate since they aren’t usually trying to extricate a grub. They merely probe the bark or drill a series of tiny holes to get the sap oozing in order to trap insects. Flickers don’t forage on trees at all.
Both the black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers are bark strippers. They strike the bark from the side, sometimes denuding an entire tree. They favor dead and dying conifers in areas disturbed by flooding, fire or harvesting. The act of striking the bark from the side produces a distinctively dull hammer. That particular sound is my secret weapon for finding these elusive species.
None of this is foolproof. I still get hoodwinked a lot. And I’ll be danged if the culprit that fools me most often isn’t a nuthatch. The bird’s name is derived from the Old English word for hatchet. Our white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches both strike the tree when foraging. Sometimes it’s to pry out insects hiding in the bark. At other times they wedge seeds or hard-bodied insects into crevices in the bark and hack at it with their sharp bills. The sound is almost identical to the hammer of a downy woodpecker.
By the way, mastering bird songs and sounds isn’t as overwhelming as it seems. There are tricks. I’ll be revealing some of them in a slide show presentation at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden at 7 p.m. April 24. Meanwhile, practice on today’s woodpecker tips. You should be able to remember some of them, knock on wood.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.