By Joe Reynolds
NY Harbor Nature Blog
A sure sign that Old Man Winter will be arriving soon to New York Harbor. Every morning for the past three weeks I've listened to a few downy woodpeckers drilling holes in oak trees near my house. The sound is distinctive and can be heard a great distance by me and probably by other animals.
Downy woodpeckers often excavate roost holes in the fall. The birds are busy excavating not just one, but several roosting holes in preparation for the coming winter.
Having a winter home is important for the survival of a downy woodpecker. A slow-moving woodpecker that didn’t drill at least one in time will be forced to roost in the open where it will have a difficult time retaining heat on a cold winter’s night. It will also be more exposed to owls and other predators during the night.
Listen closely for the next few weeks during the daytime around New York Harbor in nearby urban and suburban parks, woodlots and in residential areas, especially in areas with lots of deciduous trees near a waterway. Perhaps you too will hear the soft rapid drilling sound of the smallest woodpecker in North America.
But don’t confuse drilling with drumming. Both are common activities for woodpeckers, but each with a specific purpose. Drilling is when a woodpecker will create a hollow area in a tree for nesting or roosting. Drumming, on the other hand, is what a woodpecker does to attract a mate or mark a territory. Drumming occurs primarily in the spring.
Right now, downy woodpeckers are drilling. They are making a series of very rapid strikes onto deciduous trees, usually a large dead limb or dead tree, or low tapping sounds that usually last only a few seconds. They seem to be most active early in the morning to around mid-day.
As woodpeckers drill, they will chip out wood to make a small cavity for winter roosting. In the spring, a resurgence of drilling activity occurs in preparation for the nesting season.
It usually takes between 3 to 7 days for a single downy woodpecker to whittle away a home in a tree, depending on the thickness of the tree of course. Throwing out around 40 billfuls of sawdust in the process. If the perfect tree cannot be found, I have seen downies hollow out the interior of bluebird nest boxes. They have also been known to roost in old fence posts.
Roosts are usually 7 to 20 feet above the ground, but can be as high as 60 feet. The entrance is usually a couple inches long, and the cavity is 4 to10 inches deep. The hole is often oriented away from chilly northerly winter winds.
Sometimes sneaky titmice, chickadees, nuthatches or flying squirrels will try to take over a downy’s winter roosting cavity when temperatures become really cold at night. But the birds have seen this tricky behavior before. There is no evidence of downy woodpeckers migrating south for the winter. They have learned to tough it out in hopes for better nesting spots come spring.
Lucky for us, the downy woodpecker is equally at home in urban parks or backyard bird feeders. So even if you don’t get a chance to hear the bird drilling this autumn, chances are really good you can take delight in seeing this ubiquitous feathered resident around New York Harbor sometime soon.
STOP THE WILLIAMS FRACKED GAS PIPELINE THROUGH NY HARBOR!
MY TOP 5 FAVORITE BOOKS ABOUT NY HARBOR
1. Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City by Leslie Day
2.Heartbeats in the Muck by John Waldman
3. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay by Clyde L. MacKenzie Jr.
4. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate
5. The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell