Woodpeckers March to their own Beat

Spring is almost here. If you listen closely, you’ll hear songbirds announcing their presence with unique melodies. Woodpeckers also play in the spring symphony. Both male and females will drum into dead or hollow trees to defend their territory and attract mates. Drumming is different than foraging for food.

With practice, you can tell woodpecker species apart by their drumming patterns. Each species pattern is unique with changes in tempo, pitch and length.

You may be wondering if woodpeckers get headaches repeating drumming and pecking. Their skulls are reinforced to spread the impact and their brains are cushioned.

A downy woodpecker perches on a railing.

Woodpeckers call forests and our neighborhoods home. In forests, woodpeckers usually drum on hollow trees. However, in neighbourhoods, other materials like the metal eavestroughs on your house make their drumming more effective because it makes a louder noise. While the loud noise may disrupt your sleep in the morning, rest assured woodpeckers mostly drum in early spring.

Woodpeckers are cavity-nesters, meaning they excavate holes in trees to raise young, sleep and store food. They make their nests in dead trees or trees with soft wood. These trees are usually affected by fungus or rot, so people often remove them from around their home for safety. When these trees are removed, woodpeckers may look to other structures, like our homes, to make nests. Trimming dead trees to a safe height or putting up nest boxes gives woodpeckers a better place to drum and build their nests.

Woodpeckers have an important role in our local ecosystems. Like other cavity-nesting birds, woodpeckers eat bugs. As a result, they help control pest species like the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB).

A white-breasted nuthatch visits its nest repurposed from an old woodpecker nest.

They’re also “ecosystem engineers”. They hollow out their nests and once their chicks leave the nest, the cavities provide habitat for other wildlife such as tree swallows, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, eastern screech owls, American kestrels, bats and squirrels.

Our Integrated Watershed Monitoring Program (IWMP) team recently found that cavity-nesting birds, like woodpeckers, are becoming more common in the Credit River Watershed. They’ve increased by 20 per cent since we began keeping track in 2002.

A hairy woodpecker bores into a dead tree in search of bugs.

Keep an ear out for the drumming beats of woodpeckers in your neighbourhood this spring.

Are you interested in creating nesting habitat in your backyard? Visit the CVC store to purchase a bird nest box kit.

Learn more about our long-term Integrated Watershed Monitoring Program.

By CVC’s Crystal Kelly, Technician, Watershed Monitoring

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