This story was originally published in April 2017.
Today we learn how to speak woodpecker. At least five different species are cavorting somewhere near your house right this minute. There are three other woodpecker species in Maine that I will mention and then completely ignore.
Most birds have a small vocabulary, limited by their vocal abilities. But woodpeckers have multiple calls. They can also pound out a message. Woodpeckers talk a lot, especially this time of year.
Let’s start with drumming. Each woodpecker drums differently, and most of the time you can tell them apart. My default drummer is a downy woodpecker. It has a nice, short, even drum. It feels like you can hear every tap distinctly and maybe count them. You can’t, but it feels that way.
The hairy woodpecker has a similar drum but faster. Like the downy, all the taps are evenly spaced, but in this case the taps come too fast to hear distinctly. It’s a rapid-fire machine gun. You couldn’t even pretend to count all the taps.
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Once you’ve got the downy and hairy figured out, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is easy. This bird is also a petite woodpecker — just slightly smaller than a hairy. Unlike its cousins, it is not a year-round resident. It migrates into Maine around the third week of April and immediately starts its unusual drumming pattern. The drumming starts strongly and then peters out unevenly. It’s like the drummer runs out of gas. Sapsuckers are especially fond of loudness, and this is the little bugger that is most often heard drumming on metal.
Pileated woodpeckers are the big dudes with the red crested heads. They have a deep, booming drum that gets faster and quieter toward the end. It’s often likened to the sound made by a dropped ping pong ball. The drums accelerate as they fade out.
Northern flickers are large woodpeckers, and they have deep booming drums. They accelerate a little, too, but not as much as pileated woodpeckers. The two can be difficult to tell apart. Fortunately, flickers don’t drum much, so they won’t give you many opportunities to be confused. Don’t worry about them. You may never hear one drum.
You will certainly hear flickers call. What they lack in drumming they make up for in shrieking. Flickers have a loud call note that sounds like a downward “CHEEoww.” They also vocalize something that might be called a song if it had an ounce of music in it. It’s a repeated “flick-flick-flick,” from which the bird gets its name. Lastly, flickers have a Woody Woodpecker laugh that usually doesn’t drop much at the end.
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The pileated woodpecker is actually the real-life model for the Woody Woodpecker cartoon. It’s got the same laugh as the flicker, but it’s more ragged and tends strongly to drop in pitch at the end. The two laughs are sufficiently similar that I still mix them up occasionally.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have a range of vocalizations. Around the nest or their favorite feeding tree, you’ll often hear an uneven “wika-wika-wika” or a high-pitched complaining “MEER.” A pair nested over my driveway last year, and the same pair drilled sap holes in a birch behind the house. Until they left in late September, all I heard was “wika-wika-wika.” Sapsuckers also call a two-tone “KEE-yah” that sounds a little like a red-shouldered hawk. Of course, that’s a tip that only works if you know what a red-shouldered hawk sounds like.
Hairy woodpeckers are very vocal. They keep in touch with nearby woodpeckers by frequently uttering a “PEEK” call note. When interacting with each other, they’ll do an almost indescribable “tweecha-tweecha-tweecha-wick-wick-wick.” While flying from perch to perch, they’ll cry out with a rattling vocalization that sounds like a belted kingfisher. Of course, that’s a tip that only works if you know what a belted kingfisher sounds like. Hairy woodpeckers also do a horse-like whinny.
Downy woodpeckers have a similar whinny, but it drops in pitch at the end. It’s very distinctive, and it’s a dead giveaway. Think of the downward whinny as “Downy Down,” and you’ll never forget it. Downy woodpeckers also do a call note that is like the PEEK note of the hairy but is a duller “pik.” They can be hard to tell apart, but it gets easier with practice.
In the last couple of decades, red-bellied woodpeckers have moved into the state. In northern Maine, we have always had black-backed woodpeckers and American three-toed woodpeckers. They all sound different. But that’s a story for another day.
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.