Sounds of the Forest: How Woodpeckers Communicate

downy by kelly colgan azar
Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

What’s that sound?

Woodpeckers aren’t just looking for food when they hammer away at the trunk of a tree, they’re communicating. In fact, some woodpeckers make very little noise when they’re hunting a meal. While some birds sing a harmonically pleasing song to relay messages, woodpeckers tap on trees, or “drum” to communicate.

Drumming, as its referred to officially, is what some woodpeckers, like Downies, use to defend territory or attract other of their species. They can even interpret drumming intensity to determine whether a fellow woodpecker is a friend or foe. A woodpecker with a short drum is not considered very threatening, while a longer drum could mean a significant threat. Mates or partners will often coordinate with each other and decide if they need to fight an offending woodpecker together, or not.

Most Pileated Woodpeckers drum for about 3 seconds, in 40–60 second intervals. They’ve also been observed rapping, or slamming their bill against a surface, when they become excited.

Their skull and muscle structure is unique from other birds. They can take repeated blows to the head without suffering injuries. Manufacturers of protective head gear are now taking lessons from woodpecker anatomy and using it to design better helmets. This research has also been used to create a collar that helps prevent brain injuries in athletes.

Like many other birds, Pileated Woodpeckers communicate and fend off adversaries using vocal sounds. These calls can be divided into five main categories:

Random cuks — up to four per minute, but usually less.

High call — six to eight high pitched cuks and one lower one.

Woick — usually exchanged by pairs or mates.

G-waick — loud and shrill, it sometimes indicates conflict, or an intruder.

Hn, Hn — it’s still somewhat uncertain what this one means, but it’s usually made during the breeding season.

Another way they frighten off invaders is by displaying the white under-feathers on their wings, pointing their head and bill up, sometimes backwards, while swaying, jerking their body, and flapping their wings in some kind of Bill Waving Dance. It can be accompanied by a vocal threat and the raising of their red-feathered crest.

They often tangle with intruding woodpeckers, and keep the same nesting territory year after year.

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