Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 1, 2011

Yellow-bellied Sign Whacker

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:32 pm

Like others of its kind, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker announces itself to the world through rap music. They do have a voice, but it is a relatively weak one when compared to the booming laughter of the Flicker or churling sound of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. They manage a vocal effort similar to an exaggerated cat’s meow and little more. ‘Suckers excel in the percussive arts, however, and get their message out loud and clear through the use of instrumentation – mostly by tapping on solid dead wood (note the word “mostly”).

A Female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker listening to the hammering calls of her mate

Their tree tapping is distinctive among the woodpecker clan. Instead of the rapid fire “tommy gun” approach used by others (including the diminutive Downy woodpecker), Sapsuckers choose a shorter staccato rhythm in order to get their message across. It starts out loud and quick and then trails off into a set of distinct beats: “Rat-ta-tatta-tat- –tat—tat— tat—tat.”  It is the sonic equivalent of a shutter swinging in a gust of wind.

Appropriately, the scientific name of this rapper is Sphyrapicus varius – a name that loosely translates into “the spotted hammer.” Sphura means hammer in the Greek tongue. The second part of that first name, picus, refers to an ancient Roman horseman who was turned into a woodpecker by the witch Circe. I am not sure why he was turned into a woodpecker, instead of a chipmunk or a naked mole rat, but such is the way of Roman myth. Regardless, we are left with a hammering soul in the form of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker– ringing out danger, ringing out warning, ringing out the love between the brothers and the sisters all over this land.

We had one of these spotted hammers ringing love throughout the neighborhood of our Dollar Lake cabin. This frustrated roman bird staked out the place and made the rounds of his three favorite sounding posts this past weekend.  Two of the locations were trees. One was located across the lake and the other just north of our place. The third location, just down the short dirt road, was a street sign. The noise was very loud, although not terribly irritating. I, of course, can say this because my place is not right next to it.

The male bird in question – note his red bib (lacking in the female)

I could tell that he was sounding off one of the bullet riddled signs marking the end of the road, although I couldn’t be sure of which one. Sapsuckers are rather shy birds and startle easily, so it became somewhat of a mission to try and catch him in the act. A still foggy morning allowed me the opportunity to finally sneak up on the creature during one of his performances. I discovered that it was the “No Outlet” sign that was serving as his boom box. I managed to sneak behind a nearby bush to catch his next performance and film him in action.  Check out the video sequence here.

As you can see, he steadies himself with a firm grip on the bark before launching  into a set of direct blows at the aluminum. “Ring-ga-tinga-ting- –ting—ting— ting—ting.” You’d think that the impact of bill on metal would shatter the former, but the bird takes great care to strike at a perpendicular angle (no glancing blows) and at a point where the edge of the sign has some give to it. There is some paint wear where repeated blows are dealt on the uplifted edge (see below).  He would enact a series of widely spaced hammering events before flying off to the next tree to repeat the sequence. I will say that he spent more time at the sign tree than at any other station.

I suppose there was a bit of irony in this situation – considering that the bird was literally finding his outlet by hammering on the “No Outlet” sign. Since the bird preferred early morning for his noisy rounds, I am left wondering if the bullet holes left in the signs are from my earlier human neighbors taking exception to a previous sign whacker.  There is more than one way to stop a hammering Roman.

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