Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 24, 2009

Gett’n Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:06 pm

I’ve spent some time looking up at Downy Woodpeckers lately and discovered a few surprises.  Their distinctive drumming calls are now ringing through the spring woods and this auditory treat should be reason enough to merit attention. There is much more to these diminutive little wood whackers than that which meets the ear, however. Our smallest North American woodpecker exhibits some interesting  territorial dance behaviors as well.

The problem with woodpecker watching is that you have to break your neck doing it. These birds are basically creatures of the tree tops. For those us over “a certain age,” looking up for prolonged periods of time into those tree tops causes sustained fusion of the neck vertebrae and the need to spend a lot of followup time looking down. Luckily for all of us, the Downys do offer some immediate options to looking uppy.  Take those rapping calls, for instance.

You’ve probably noticed over the last few months there has been a resurgence of woodpecker rapping. All species do it. This is a sure sign that the breeding season is approaching. Having declared a moratorium on the practise since last September, the lengthening days awaken the need to send out territorial announcements and singles ads. All winter long the pecking has been of a purely functional nature – the result of chipping away at rotten wood to get at grubs. The new season requires a new approach to the wood percussion medium as a way to send out resonant tattoos.

Since Downy Woodpeckers have especially weak voices, their only way of really getting the message out to a wide audience is to drum it out on a dead tree (listen to Hammering here). The sound can carry for miles. This rapping message system is employed by males and females alike.  Females, in fact, may actually drum more than the males.

You’ll notice that the rapping is deliberately broadcast as a series of bursts. In the recording, the pattern is repeated every four seconds for a rate that would total around 15 per minute -a typical pace for Downy-rapping. Larger woodpeckers have significantly slower rap-rates.

This tapping serves to warn away rival males or females, but it also serves notice to mates who are house hunting. By hammering, a pair member can alert it’s mate to a potential nesting tree and the effect is to summon the partner to the spot. Males and females of a mated pair will also engage in reciprocal hammering as a way to perform an percussive duet of love!

I did allude at the get-go that there’s more to the Downy Woodpecker than just noise, and so there is.  It is occasionally fruitful to risk back injury in order to watch them as well. Towards this end, I have a short video I’d like you to view (see here). The trick is to stick with the whole sequence and it’ll give you a peek at the world of animal behavior. The interaction between two opposing Downy Woodpeckers is basically a silent affair. Armed with chisels as they are, you’d think these little guys (or gals) would peck each others eyes out, but they don’t. Their territorial interaction boils down to a dance of posture, pose, and motion. The behavior between same sex opponents consists of bill/head waving, motionless stand-offs, and something called “butterfly flapping.”

I won’t go into a deep explanation of all these steps except to say they pretty well are what they sound like. The stand- offs consist of pointing the bill straight up, flaring the tail and freezing into place. In this short sequence, the two birds stopped multiple times to face off – in one case for over 26 seconds. Head waving is a mechanical side to side swaying accompanied by flicks of the wing and tail. “Butterfly Flying” is so named because the woodpeckers will pump their wings in an exaggerated manner so as to display their impressively speckled wings to each other. The last few seconds of this clip shows a bit  of that fancy flying going on.

These birds kept up their dance long after I stopped shooting. I had to stop in order to perform a slow motion dance of my own in order to resume my neck alignment. It is essential to ignore the wavering hand of the cameraman when viewing this piece since it is the direct effect of physical pain. If you want stunning photo-realism then go watch “Planet Earth.”  Those guys would never dwell on the micro life of such common little things as black and white woodpeckers. Since most of us don’t have polar bears, penguins, or elephants tromping through our neighborhoods it is good to dwell on what is about you. You might learn a thing or two and get a spine adjustment the bargain.


  1. We’ve had a downy woodpecker as a regular feeder for the last several months. He/she(?) just loves the suet feeder. He/she hangs around most of the day and we’ve gotten to know him/her pretty well…except if it’s a male or female, looks exactly like the one in your picture….I should look it up. Just started reading your blog and really enjoy it, thanks!

    Comment by homebody — March 27, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  2. The hammering sound really is impressive. I heard/saw a downy the other day in Devonshire park in Ann Arbor. Cool!

    Comment by Monica — March 28, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  3. I also have seen several Downy’s feeding at the suet blocks I’ve been putting out at my feeder the last several months. The bird’s call seems similar to a robin’s.

    Comment by Kathy — March 28, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

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