October 25th, 2022 by georgann

Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat.  “What is that lousy bird doing up there?” 

Tap-tap-tp-tp-tp-Tap-tap-tp-tp-tp.   “It’s six o’clock in the morning, for crying out loud!”

It happens every late winter and spring and the calls start coming in.  “What do I do about the woodpecker drumming on my gutters?” or “How do I keep the (expletive deleted) woodpeckers from destroying my house?”

Both are fair, sensible questions, but with unsatisfactory answers and solutions. 

Drumming on gutters is a territorial behavior performed mostly by male woodpeckers.  It serves the same purpose that singing does for male songbirds.  In late winter and spring, territories are decided and maintained by male participants using gutters to resoundingly announce their dominion and vigor, sending their drumming far into the airwaves.  It’s testosterone at it’s finest moment and there’s really not a whole lot that can be done about it except waiting for him to become more occupied with his family.

Drumming on wood surfaces, on the other hand, is usually done in search of food.  Cedar siding and wood trim are favorite places for carpenter bees, beetles, and other wood boring insects.  Woodpeckers have learned that cedar siding and window or door frames are plentiful places to find these insects and their larvae.  Woodpeckers are actually doing us a favor by removing these critters from the wood, but it’s a favor that’s hard to appreciate when it appears that the house is being destroyed. 

Actually, the house is being destroyed either way; the insects are much more subtle.  Very little is effective in divert a woodpeckers’ attention from the wood trim or siding of a house.  Nearly everything imaginable has been tried, usually to no avail; slimy rubber snakes, scary plastic owls, glittering aluminum strips, smelly moth balls, pictures of hawks or your mother-in-law, or just standing there and waving your arms.  Eventually, most woodpeckers simply move on to your neighbor’s house, leaving you with some homework.

Who’s to blame for all this damage to eardrums and wood?  There are seven common species of woodpeckers that live in the southeastern United States including Georgia and the Atlanta area.  The most common resident woodpeckers are Downy, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Northern Flicker.  Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers are not quite as common in the metropolitan area.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly common winter residents.  Any of these birds can, theoretically, drum on a house, but the most inclined culprits are Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers and Northern Flickers.

Woodpeckers are placed, phylogenetically, in their own order, Piciformes.  Most of them have adapted their lifestyles to tree trunks and branches.  Generally, they cling to trees using well-hooked claws arranged on short zygodactyl feet, two toes pointing forwards and two toes pointing backwards. Their stout tails end in stiff barbs which solidly brace the bird as it hitches up the tree trunk.  Using their chisel-like bills, woodpeckers excavate nesting cavities in trees which, when vacated, serve as cavities for songbirds, screech owls, tree frogs, flying squirrels, and other animals.

That same beak can peck away, probe, or drill into the bark of tree trunks, branches, twigs, fallen logs, and cedar siding.  The shock of pounding into wood all day is absorbed by a thick-walled skull, a narrow space between the tough outer membrane of the brain and the brain itself, and the strong muscles of skull and bill.

Their long tongues are sticky and barb-like and can easily reach into holes and tunnels, searching snakelike for a tasty insect.  The hyoid bone of the skull helps to support the tongue which, when retracted, curves around the back of the skull and attaches to the base of the nostrils.

In addition to their characteristic pecking and drumming, woodpeckers can be easily recognized by their overall black and white color pattern, infrequently interrupted by splashes of bright red.  Red-headed woodpeckers have the most red feathers which entirely cover their heads, while Northern Flickers are mostly brown with only a small sliver of red on their nape.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers seem to be misnamed until examined in hand, and, even then, only the male shows a suggestion of a red belly.  Neither female Downy nor Hairy Woodpeckers display red feathers.  Female Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have gray foreheads unlike the red forehead of the males. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) breed across Canada from Alaska to New England and down through the higher elevations of the Appalachians.  In the winter, this species moves into the deciduous forests and orchards of the southeastern United States.  Although the bird is rather quiet and easily overlooked, its distinctive pattern of small, parallel sap wells in tree trunks is evidence of active birds.  The Sapsucker feeds on the inner bark of the trees and returns frequently to the sap and insects that gather around the holes.  These sap wells are often visited by other birds and animals including hummingbirds, warblers, chipmunks, and squirrels.  Sapsuckers also glean insects from tree trunks and occasionally forage for left-over fruit and berries.  They are rarely associated with drumming on houses.

Sapsuckers have a weak, slurred call somewhat suggestive of a cat-like “mew”.  Their drumming is an irregular rhythm with staccato stops and starts and, with a little practice, can be told from other woodpeckers’ drumming.  Listen for tap-tap-trrrrrrr-tat-tat—-tat.

The yellowish underparts of the males are brighter than that of the female and young birds.  It is the only woodpecker with both a red forehead and throat patch and has a large prominent white shoulder patch.  The female has a white throat patch.

Sapsuckers tend to build more than one cavity nest, finally choosing one of several to lay eggs.  Incubation, by both sexes, is for 12 – 14 days and the young leave the nest at about 29 days.

The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is a permanent resident of orchards, woodlot edges, and open forests with large scattered trees.  The striking plumage of this bird makes its identification unmistakable.  Even in flight, a red-head can be recognized by its large white wing patches. 

Red-heads are noisy and active woodpeckers, uttering harsh “churs” and “weers” and chasing each other from tree to tree.  Their drumming is fairly weak with two well-spaced introductory taps followed by a roll; tap—-tap-trrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Unlike most woodpeckers, they often “sally” out from a perch to grab an insect in flight.  In winter they may eat acorns, fruit, berries, or visit a sunflower-filled bird feeder.  Like their close relative, the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), they often store their winter harvest of acorns in hole-studded tree trunks.

Red-headed woodpeckers nest anywhere in a cavity excavated from a few feet above the ground up to 70 feet in dead tree trunks and limbs, telephone poles, and sometimes bird boxes.  Four to five white eggs are incubated by both sexes for 12-13 days.  The gray-headed young are fed by both parents and fledge at 27-31 days.  The fledglings will retain their gray head feathers until their pre-nuptial molt (late winter) and then resemble their parents, both of which have red heads.

In the Atlanta area, these woodpeckers all but disappear during the winter months.  They are known to migrate short distances, but return the next spring to the same nesting area as the previous summer.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are primarily birds of the southeastern swamps and wet woodlands, but have learned to tolerate humans and frequent woodlots and bird feeders.  The Red-bellied Woodpecker is poorly named since its dull reddish belly feathers are difficult to see.  The bird’s most distinctive features are its bright red crown and nape and black-and-white ladder back pattern.  In flight, look for the white wing patches and white rump.

These are noisy woodpeckers, easily identified by their repeated soft, scolding, “chrrrr, chrrrr”.  Red-bellieds’ drumming is similar to that of the Red-headeds’, but often interrupted with the distinctive, “chrrrr”s.

Not an especially shy bird, Red-bellieds frequent urban yards and gardens with sunflower seed or suet feeders.  They also eat insects, wild fruits, nuts, berries, and acorns.  Like the Red-headed, Red-bellieds will store nuts and seeds in bark crevices for the winter.

Four to five white eggs are laid in a cavity as high as 120 feet above the ground in tree trunks.  Lower nests are excavated in fence posts, telephone poles, and tree stumps.  Unusual for woodpeckers, Red-bellieds have been known to use an individual cavity in succeeding nesting seasons or another woodpecker’s cavity.

Both sexes incubate the eggs for 12 – 14 days.  The fledglings, without the bright red napes, are fed for a few weeks away from the cavity, but while clinging onto tree trunks, begging for food.  They often follow their parents to bird feeders, watching and learning how to effectively extract sunflower seeds.

The smallest woodpecker in North America is the six inch Downy (Picoides pubescens-”with hairs of puberty, downy”)  They feed mostly on insects in a wide range of habitats from deciduous forests in wilderness areas to shrubbery in suburban lots.  Many bird watchers are delighted when a downy woodpecker favors their suet feeder especially during cold winter months when insects are few.

Male Downies are easily distinguished from females by the red patch on the back of their heads.  Through careful observation, individual birds can be told apart by their black and white facial patterns.  Downies closely resemble Hairy Woodpeckers but can be distinguished by smaller size, smaller bill (see below), softer calls, and black spots on the outer tail feathers.

The call of this woodpecker is a downward whinny of successive notes which helps to remember the name of the bird; a downward spiral for downy woodpecker.  They also have a soft “pik” note.  The Downy’s drumming is a steady staccato of even-paced bursts, often 12 – 15 per minute, trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Before nesting, male and female Downy Woodpeckers have little to do with each other, preferring the company of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and blue jays.  Once spring arrives and hormones begin to flow, the male begins to court his prospective mate.  The dedicated pair travels closely together inspecting various trees for a suitable nesting site.  They may begin to excavate one or two cavities until a final one is chosen where she will lay 4 – 5 white eggs.  Incubation is about 12 days after which both parents feed hundreds of insects to their hungry family for 25 days.  Fledglings look similar to their parents, but slightly whiter breasted and fuzzier vent feathers.  Interestingly, a fledgling male has a pale red patch on the crown of his head. 

Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) closely resemble Downy Woodpeckers and differ mainly in larger body and bill sizes.  A sharp observer may notice the black spots are missing on the outer tail feathers of the hairy, but the easiest way to distinguish the two woodpeckers is to compare each species’ bill length to its head length.  A Downie’s bill is approximately one half the length of its head, while a Hairy’s bill is comparably longer, roughly the same length as its head.  The one inch difference in body size of these woodpeckers can be a tough call in the field from 100 feet.  The beak length is a more accurate identification of these two look-alike.

Hairy Woodpeckers are usually less common than Downies and require larger trees for nesting.  They are less likely to visit bird feeders, but can be found foraging widely in older forests and hardwood bottomlands which contain trees with at least an 8″ diameter.   They feed mostly on insects especially larvae, beetles, ants, and caterpillars.  Because of their scarcity, Hairy Woodpeckers rarely participate in destroying the wood framing and siding of houses.  In fact, it might be considered an honor if a Hairy Woodpecker were to choose one’s home to destroy.

The call of a Hairy Woodpecker is similar to that of the belted kingfisher, perhaps less harsh and rattled.  Another note is the sharp “peek”; very similar to a downy’s “pik”, but louder.  Hairy’s tend drum at a steady rate and slightly more rapidly than downy’s.  It may also sound slightly deeper, but that can be misleading since pitch and loudness can be determined by the resonance of the wood. 

The cavities of this woodpecker range from 4 to 60 feet above ground in live deciduous trees.  More so that other woodpeckers, Hairy’s tend to choose new nest trees every year, leaving the older cavities for other birds and animals.  Incubation of 4-6 eggs lasts 11 – 12 days with a nestling period of 28 – 30 days. 

Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus-”helmited wood cutter”) are our largest woodpeckers and known as the “lord-god birds” because of their size.  Adapting much better to human intrusion than the similar Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Pileateds are fairly common in old growth deciduous forests where large trees are present.  Their huge beak is specially adapted for prying and probing in dead wood in search of insects.  They often forage for carpenter ants on fallen, decaying logs, staining their white facial stripes a lovely pink. 

This huge woodpecker excavates a nest nearly 25 inches deep in large dead trees.  Quite a number of nests are built in utility poles surrounding baseball fields or tennis courts.  Apparently the sporting activity doesn’t interfere with the birds’ nesting efforts and vice-versa.  Several individual roosting holes may be excavated during the year, some of them not far from the eventual nesting hole.

A nesting hole may take 30 days to complete.  The entrance hole is usually rectangular, sometimes triangular.  Three to four eggs are laid in early April and incubated for 18 days.  They young leave the nest after 26-28 days and may remain with the parents for 3 months.  A nesting pair of birds usually returns to the same area year after year.

Pileated woodpeckers differ from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the simple fact that ivory-bills are mostly likely extinct.  Yet, every year nature centers and Audubon societies receive dozens of calls claiming one or two Ivory-bills in town.  A good field mark to look for in comparing the two is the black and white facial markings.  They are slightly different but very distinguishing in the two birds.

It isn’t easy to overlook a Pileated Woodpecker.  It’s large body and wingspread can only be mistaken for that of a crow’s with white wing patches.  The deep gouges in dead trees and widely scattered wood of rotten stumps are characteristic of pileated presence.  They can also do quite a bit of damage to your house in their search for insects. 

Even the Pileated’s call is huge–a slow, irregular “cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk” and a loud flicker-like “yucka, yucka, yucka” often given when flying to roosting holes.  Both sexes drum, usually on a resonant place on a dead tree or stub.  The drumming is usually quite loud and deliberate, lasting 3 – 5 seconds.  The drum roll becomes more rapid, but softer, near the end DA-DA-DA-DA-Da-Da-Da-Da-d-d-d-d-d.

The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), formerly known as the Yellow-shafted Flicker, is the state bird of Alabama.  Our eastern bird is a subspecies of the western Red-shafted Flicker. 

Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers that feed primarily on the ground, searching with their long worm-like tongues for ants.  In addition to eating ants, flickers are well-known for their anting behaviors.  During passive anting, the bird simply sits on an anthill and allows the ants, unmolested, to crawl throughout the feathers, removing mites and lice.  A quick shake from the departing bird and the ants fall off.  Active anting, on the other hand, requires the bird to pick up ants and squish them, extracting formic acid which is then dabbed on the feathers and serving as a pesticide.  The ants, no doubt, prefer the first method. 

Flickers’ field marks are quite attractive; black spots on the belly, a red slash on the nape, a large white rump, and bright yellow shafts of the wing and tail feathers.  Males differ from females by sporting a black “mustache” mark on each side of the face.

Flickers are consistently the only woodpeckers that try to excavate cavities in houses and other buildings.  Unless evicted by the homeowner, many of them have been successful, if not persistent, in their attempts to live with humans.

Not a shy bird, it is possible to watch male flickers perform territorial dances around tree trunks.  Part of their courtship display, males will chase each other, calling loudly, “wicka, wicka, wicka”.  Many such territorial and courtship behaviors involve head swinging and flicking of tail and wing feathers (hence the name).

Once a mate is found and a cavity excavated, 5 -8 eggs are laid and incubated for 11 – 16 days.  The young leave the nest in about 28 days.

Besides the “wicka, wicka” call, Flickers also utter a loud “Klee-yer” call.  This may be a contact call, often given by fledglings to attract parents’ attention.  The drumming of the Flicker is difficult to identify.  Softer than a hairy woodpeckers’, it is often interspersed with the “wicka” call. 

How quiet our neighborhoods would be without woodpeckers.  With a little practice, they can be easily identified by their calls and drums .  Although annoying at times, drumming is one of the most enticing behaviors of woodpeckers whether it be on a gutter or cedar house or tree trunk.   Spending a little time listening to and watching woodpeckers may be just the thing we need to better appreciate those early morning tap-tap-tp-tp-tps.

Birding Adventures, Inc.

Georgann Schmalz