Drumming (KQED Perspective aired March 2004)
by Michael Ellis

I live in sub-urban Santa Rosa and in my life as a naturalist I am aware of the fabric of wild things that drape over my local landscape. One of my favorite signs of spring is the drumming of one of our common woodpecker species – the Nuttall’s Woodpecker This bird is almost wholly associated with the oak woodlands, especially live oaks, and is confined to mostly California. They mate for life and are present throughout the year; they don’t migrate in the winter. And as long as there are plenty of oaks, they thrive. But when oaks are cleared for development, these woodpeckers soon disappear.

Our Spanish speaking neighbors to the south call woodpeckers, Carpenterios – the carpenters. And what a perfect name that is, because they are the little home builders for many other species of birds. The Nuttall’s peck a large hole in a tree and then only nest in it for one year. So the following year another home becomes available on the bird real-estate market, so to speak. Some of our local birds that rely on these woodpecker-created holes are Western Bluebirds, Violet-Green Swallows, Bewick’s Wrens, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees and White-Breasted Nuthatches.

There are three situations in which you may hear a woodpecker pecking on wood. The first and most common is the daily activity of these birds searching for beetle grubs or other insects buried in the trunk of a tree. These sounds tend to be very irregular, as the bird simply explores the area for food -tap, tap, t tap ttttap. Then there is the nesting cavity excavation which is a lot of sounds indicating a lot of work being done but not in a regular beat. And finally there is the drumming. Woodpeckers often choose a hollow tree, a metal gutter, or even a tin roof – any substrate with good acoustics. This is a rapid tattoo. Bddddddddtttt. Dbddddddddddtttttttt. It is a self promotional announcement. I am here and you are not. I hear this only in the spring and it’s associated with breeding activity and in many ways corresponds to the singing of testosterone-laden male birds. But both male and female woodpeckers drum.

I am happy to know that I live around enough oaks to support the Nuttalls and they are busy building houses for my other feathered friends. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009