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Why Woodpeckers Drum

Understanding Woodpecker Drumming

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Woodpecker Holes

Woodpecker drumming can create many shallow holes.

Melissa Mayntz

Birders can easily learn to recognize the patterns and rhythms of woodpecker drumming to help bird identification, but understanding why woodpeckers drum can help any birder expand their appreciation of these useful bird sounds and the birds that make them.

What Is Drumming

Drumming is a woodpecker's act of rapidly pecking on a resonant object to create a pattern of sound. Depending on the habitat, woodpeckers may choose hollow logs or trees, house siding, utility poles, rain gutters, trash cans or chimneys for drumming. The exact pattern of the drumming will vary in tempo, length and rhythm depending on the woodpecker species, and most species have distinctive drumming sounds.

Woodpecker Anatomy

Woodpeckers have special physical adaptations that allow them to peck quickly and repeatedly on hard objects without hurting themselves. Thicker skulls cushion the birds' brains and heads from hard impacts, and strong neck muscles allow them to drum for long periods of time without strain. Their bills are also thick, straight and sturdy to withstand drumming impacts.

Why Do Woodpeckers Drum?

Unlike other songbirds, woodpeckers do not have a distinctive song as part of their avian vocabulary. Instead, drumming is the way the birds communicate, and woodpeckers will drum for two main reasons:

  • Attracting a mate
  • Advertising a territory

When a woodpecker drums on a resonant object, the resulting sound can be heard for great distances by other birds. Other woodpeckers will recognize the sound by its pattern and tempo, and birds of the same species can be attracted to potential mates through drumming. At the same time, drumming alerts competitors that the nearby territory is claimed and can be defended by a strong, vibrant bird that can produce good drumming.

Just like bird songs, drumming is most common in spring when birds are trying to attract mates and establish territories. Woodpeckers frequently drum in the morning, though some drumming may be heard at any time of day. Both male and female birds have been known to drum.

Avoiding Drumming Damage

While drumming can be fascinating for birders trying to bird by ear or interested in learning more about woodpeckers, it can also be frustrating when woodpeckers drum on a house or shed. Repeated drumming can leave a series of small, shallow holes in wood surfaces such as siding, eaves or shingles, and those holes can lead to greater damage from insects or moisture. Fortunately, it is easy to discourage most woodpeckers from drumming on inappropriate surfaces. Dangling Mylar strips to scare the birds, covering the affected area or securing boards to minimize resonance, choosing less attractive building materials or trying scare tactics can all be effective ways to discourage woodpeckers from drumming where it isn't welcome.

Knowing why woodpeckers drum can help birders appreciate the uniqueness of these birds and their behavior, and understanding drumming can also help homeowners protect their property from woodpecker damage without resorting to less bird-friendly methods.

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