Increasing daylight and ever slowly warmer temperatures are starting to stimulate downy woodpeckers, the smallest of eastern woodpeckers, around New York Harbor to enter into another breeding season. The birds are busy drumming or making noise to advertise their nesting territory to rival woodpeckers. The sound of a woodpecker drumming or rapidly pecking on an object tells other nearby woodpecker to move on - this area has already been taken in the neighborhood.
But the drumming doesn’t stop here. Downys need to eat. They will peck into trees, logs, fence posts, and even utility poles to gobble up grubs, ants, and other wood-boring insects, which provide high levels of protein for breeding birds. Tree sap is also a popular food in the spring when few other foods are available.
In addition, downy woodpeckers will drum to make nest cavities in a tree. A bird will drill a hole in a dead or live tree about 5-50 feet above ground, which will eventually make a nice home for a female woodpecker to lay and incubate 4-5 white eggs.
Does all this constant motion hurt a bird’s head? At the very least does a little woodpecker get a headache from the banging?
Drumming is actually a really important activity for a woodpecker. These long-billed birds are not songbirds and don’t have a distinctive song to sing to attract a mate or advertise a nesting territory. They often must drum to communicate, especially over long distances. The strength and loudness of a drumming sound will help to advertise the health and dominance of a woodpecker who is making these exceptional woodland sounds.
If you listen carefully, each species of a woodpecker has a different and unique drumming sound. According to Sibley Guides, “the drum of a hairy woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums. Downy Woodpecker drums at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drums frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum.”
Luckily, woodpeckers do not get a headache from drumming. They have evolved nicely to deal with all the banging and battering to their heads. The birds have special physical adaptations, such as extra cushioning in their skull that allows them to peck quickly and repeatedly on hard objects without hurting themselves.
The Cornel Lab of Ornithology tells us that woodpeckers “have thickened skulls and powerful neck muscles that enable them to deliver sharp blows without damaging their organs.” A woodpecker's bill is also thick, straight and sturdy to withstand drumming impacts. It's able to drum for long periods of time without any pain.
For woodpeckers this spring, it’s all about the drumming. The louder the better.