I speak woodpecker. It’s not a particularly useful skill, but it’s a fairly easy skill to acquire. Spring is a good season to practice because woodpeckers are among the earliest birds to get romantically frisky. Courtship has already begun for Maine’s resident woodpeckers. Our migratory woodpeckers will be here shortly.
All woodpeckers drum, and there are distinct differences between them. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are the species most likely to be in your backyard. They regularly visit bird feeders, especially suet. They are also the two woodpeckers likely to be drumming around your house this time of year. The key to learning all woodpecker drums is to learn these two first.
Hairy and downy woodpeckers both have short, even drums. The difference is that the hairy is faster than the downy. If you hear each tap of the drum distinctly, it’s probably a downy woodpecker. If the drumming is just a fast blur, so you don’t feel you could hear each tap distinctly, it’s probably a hairy.
Test yourself. As mating season approaches, both species start to establish and maintain breeding territories. They often drum early in the morning to attract mates and ward off rivals. Step out on the porch with that first cup of coffee and give a listen. If you hear drumming, which one is it? Make a guess, then see if you can spot the culprit. Don’t worry about mis-guessing. The difference is subtle, and it takes a little practice. Once you can tell the difference between these two, other woodpeckers get easier.
You’ve got about three weeks to learn hairy and downy drums before the next woodpecker returns. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don’t winter in Maine, but they migrate back early, usually by mid-April. They’re in a rush to establish territories, and start drumming like crazy the moment they get back. Sapsuckers have a particular fondness for banging on metal, trying to make as much noise as possible. Yes, it’s annoying.
The sapsucker drum is easy to remember because it is so uneven. It starts strong and fast, and then peters out, as if the bird has run out of gas. The last taps are slow, lazy and quiet.
Contrast that with the pileated woodpecker. Woody Woodpecker was modeled after this year-round resident – big and noisy. Pileated woodpeckers have been drumming since January. Their drum is booming and can be heard half a mile away. Most importantly, each drum tapers off, getting faster toward the end. It’s often described as the sound of a dropped ping pong ball, accelerating but with diminishing volume. There’s nothing else like it.
Well… almost nothing else like it. Northern flickers are migrants that are starting to return. This large yellowish woodpecker often feeds on the ground. Its drum is also booming, but it doesn’t taper off as much as the pileated drum does. Fortunately, flickers don’t drum all that much, so I advise you to not worry about this one.
OK. Stop there. End of lesson. Try to master the difference between hairy and downy woodpecker drums. Listen for the staccato drumming of the sapsucker when it arrives. Identify the booming drum of the pileated woodpecker. Ignore the flicker. You’ll soon know 95 percent of all the drumming you’re hearing in Maine.
Ah! But for extra credit, a real challenge awaits the gung-ho birder. There are two woodpeckers of the north woods that are rarely seen, and heard even less. They look similar. The black-backed woodpecker is about the size of a hairy woodpecker and sports a completely black back. The American three-toed woodpecker looks much the same, but with a white ladder-backed pattern on the back. Males of both species have yellow caps, which certainly helps distinguish them from the red caps of other Maine woodpeckers. Listen for them in northern spruce forests.
As luck would have it, I’ve encountered both in the last couple of months, and it was their drumming that tipped me off. The black-backed woodpecker drum is short and even, somewhat like a hairy woodpecker drum, but a bit slower. I was birding on the Stud Mill Road, east of Milford, when a female flew over and started drumming.
A month earlier, I was birding up in the Allagash region. I heard a loud, booming, ragged drum coming from behind the trees. Suddenly, a mated pair of American three-toed woodpeckers flew over and landed next to me. I would have missed these rare birds, except for the fact that I speak woodpecker.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.