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Friday, February 5, 2021

Drumming for Springtime (Harry's Journal: Entry #1)

Are you feeling ready for Springtime? If so, then you'll be in good company the next time you take a walk along the Diahoga Trail in Athens, PA. There is about a foot of snow on the ground, but at least one woodpecker is drumming. Woodpeckers drum to establish a territory, to attract a mate, and to strengthen pair bonds. To be certain, we are not done with cold snowy winter weather yet. We're still only in February. But birds who remain near their breeding grounds year-round like Northern cardinals and some species of woodpeckers have already begun to re-establish territories for the upcoming breeding season. Even if we have a hard time sensing it, the birds know that a change in seasons is right around the corner.

Many birds migrate because food is more readily available this time of year in Central and South America. The downside to migration is that by the time migrating birds return to their breeding grounds in April and May, many of the best breeding territories will already be taken by those who arrived first...or by those who didn't migrate at all but instead chose to endure the harsh winter weather.

The hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) whom I encountered along the Diahoga Trail is one such bird that generally stays put throughout the year. During a recent trip, I found him between the water treatment plant and the cornfield where he was drumming on a dead branch of a live silver maple tree at canopy height. He had located a solid dead branch on a hollow tree that provided an amazing sounding board! 

I see him often in this area, but this was a special moment, the first time this year that I've heard drumming in the woods! I did what any bird nerd or nature nut would. I placed the side of my face directly against the trunk of the tree that he was drumming on as if my ear were a stethoscope, and WOW! What an amazing way to experience connection with wild nature! I recommend this to anyone who should happen upon a woodpecker drumming in the woods (so long as the bird is far enough above the forest floor that approaching the base of its tree does not risk alarming the bird). Listen for drumming as you walk along the trail. Locate the bird with your eyes. Figure out which tree the woodpecker is drumming on, and place your ear directly against the trunk. You are in for a treat!

Woodpecker drumming is different than woodpecker foraging. Whether drumming, foraging, or excavating, the average woodpecker slams her or his beak against the hard woody surfaces of trees about 12,000 times each day with a force roughly equal to you slamming your head against a brick wall at 16 miles per hour! (Stephen Shunk. Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. New York, NY; 2016. Pg. 4)

Thankfully, woodpeckers are specially adapted for the task. You might say they are aptly named as a group. Here is a photo that shows the drumming pattern of the hairy woodpecker I happened upon yesterday. If you count the lines, you'll notice that the drumming consists of 24 individual taps in rapid sequence over the course of approximately one second!


If you find that interesting, you may also want to check out this link to the actual sound recording that I collected while listening to my first of the year hairy woodpecker drumming yesterday along the Diahoga Trail: https://ebird.org/checklist/S80435099; and if you want to learn more about hairy woodpeckers or woodpeckers in general, be sure to check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website.

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