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Why Are Woodpeckers So Noisy? They Have A Lot To Say

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

While walking in the preserves, you may find yourself listening to the sounds around you. You might hear noises like the wind rustling the leaves, water trickling along a creek and birds singing throughout the treetops.

A pileated woodpecker. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Once you start noticing bird songs, you may find that you can pick out different tunes. Just like in a band, there are all sorts of musicians at work in the preserves. The chickadees sing “cheeeeeseburger,” while the cardinals are more like techno laser beams saying “pew pew pew.”

And there is one sound that you can’t miss — the drum solo. This musician is high up in the treetops, but the sound echoes through the whole forest. This is the work of a woodpecker! They are loud and proud, using their drumming to communicate a variety of messages.

Woodpecker drumming is also known as tattooing, rapping or tapping. Woodpeckers will find a stage that makes the most noise. Most of the time this is hollow or dead trees, but sometimes these birds get creative and use utility poles, transformer boxes, fence posts, rain gutters, trash cans and other man-made objects. Check out this northern flicker using a steel chimney top as a stage.

The main reasons for drumming include attracting a mate or claiming a territory. It is most often heard from late winter through early spring. Both male and female woodpeckers are known to drum. When selecting mate, they are listening for volume and frequency of the drumming. A loud drumming that keeps going for long periods means the woodpecker is strong. It can also tell competitors, “Back off! I am fierce, and this is my house!”

Even when woodpeckers find their mate, their ears are still listening for drumming. Research from Wake Forest University has found that when a pair of woodpeckers hears long, aggressive drumming in their territory, the birds start to coordinate an attack. However, when the researchers played weaker, shorter drumming, the pair did not seem to be bothered with the competition. Mated woodpeckers may also use drumming to call their partners in to help with the nest or advertise where an excellent food source is located.

You may also notice a whacking sound coming from a woodpecker. This is not as regular in rhythm as drumming. Woodpeckers peck away at trees to uncover the insects underneath that they can eat. They are looking for wood-boring beetles, termites, ants, caterpillars, spiders and more.

Woodpeckers rely on sound to find where the insect is hiding. They can actually hear the chewing sounds under the bark. They peck the wood away and use their long tongues to catch the delicious meal.

Different species of woodpeckers make different drumming patterns. A downy woodpecker tends to drum at a rate of about 15 taps per second. They often pause for a few seconds between each round of drumming.

Compare that to a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which prefers to drum slower and a little irregularly, making it sound like Morse code patterns.

To compare more woodpeckers drumming side by side, visit the British Library to hear six different drum solos!

Want a band to move into your back yard? You can attract woodpeckers and other birds by hanging bird feeders. Woodpeckers love peanuts and suet cakes! Check out bird-feeding basics with this Facebook Live program.


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