Birds Along The River - A Different Drummer
by Charles Weaver
About every other day this past winter I was awakened
by short bursts of staccato knocking on my house. Yes,
not on my door--but on my house! When I jumped out
of bed and "threw open the shutter," a smallish black and
white bird flew off to perch on the trunk of a nearby tree.
It was my "friend", the hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus).
Friend? Hell! He should be called Picoides villainosus!
I like my T-lll siding, and while he could probably drive
nails straighter than yours truly, I'm sure he lacks the
motivation. As far as I know, there are only two reasons
a woodpecker pecks: food or sex. And while I'm not
sure what the house is providing, my bet is on the latter.
Woodpeckers do not have a song to proclaim territory
as do most songbirds. Instead they usually "drum" on
old dead, hollow tree trunks or limbs which resonate the
sound over a great distance. I say "usually." This rascal
who has developed a fondness for my roost has left small,
nail to quarter-size holes of a straight-line pattern in several
places, announcing his availability to females.
Woodpeckers, however, do have a "call" which they
frequently issue as do other birds for various communication
chores including territorial establishment.
We have several species of woodpeckers year-round
along the Au Sable River and a couple who go south
for the winter. The permanent residents, besides the
hairy, are the downy woodpeckers and the pileated
woodpeckers. The migrators are the flickers
and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
Woodpeckers are fairly easy to recognize both in
flight and when they are foraging. They have a
characteristic way of flying - a couple of wing beats
and then a short glide, usually in a straight line. A
black and white bird perched upright on the side
of a tree trunk, using its sharp claws and stiff tail
feathers to maintain its balance, is a pretty sure bet
to be some kind of woodpecker. The males of
many of the species also have a small patch of
red somewhere on the head that the females lack.
Tree dwelling insects such as ants, beetles, and wood
borers along with their larvae, which are picked or
drilled out of the bark or wood, are their primary diet.
Various fruits and seeds are also consumed. Flickers
are the only ones who often feed on the ground
- mostly on ants. All woodpeckers nest and roost in
holes either they or nature have hollowed out in tree trunks.
The downy (Picoides pubescens) and the hairy woodpeckers
are the only two woodpeckers common to northern Michigan
that can be difficult to distinguish. In fact they have pretty
much the same black and white markings and behavior. The
only difference is their size and habitat preference. Downies
are only about two-thirds as big as hairies and their bill is
proportionately much smaller.
They are also our most common woodpeckers, the ones
most likely to visit your suet feeder. The hairy prefers a
little more remote and mature woods and is more common
in northern Michigan while the downy is seen more in
southern Michigan. Both birds have
a call which is a sharp "pik."
The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), which once was
called the yellow-shafted flicker because of the yellow
coloring on the undersides of its wings, is quite common
in our area from May through September. It is our only
woodpecker with a brown and grey cast. It is also a size
larger than the hairy. Both prefer more open woods.
A fairly raucous call, "wik-wik-wik" or "wik-er, wik-er,
wik-er"is emitted frequently and they don't drum as much
or as loud as other woodpeckers. I have seen these birds
nest in boxes folks have set up for wood ducks next to the
river. If you want to see one pay close attention to the box
on the north side across from the island at the Edgewater
The sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) has an interesting way
of foraging. It will drill evenly spaced holes in the trunks of
trees--usually the softer hardwoods like aspen and birch, and
then return to collect the insects attracted to the sap or eat the sap
itself. It seems to me the insects are the true sapsuckers.
Frequently during a mayfly hatch I have seen these birds
hawking the emerging duns over the river much like flycatchers
and waxwings. Sapsuckers can be identified by the large red
patch on their crowns and the male has an additional red patch
on the throat under his bill. With a buffy or light yellowish breast
they appear more dingy than the slightly larger hairy. Moreover,
they have a call which is much less sharp than other woodpeckers,
more of a soft whine, but their drumming is quite distinctive--a
stop-and-start stuttering rather like Morse code.
I've observed these birds more often on the South and North
Branches where the woods are more deciduous.
The "king of the woods" is the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus
pileatus). I've heard other birders pronounce pileated either with
a long or short "i" but Webster's says "aye." It refers to the red
crest on the head of these unmistakable big, crow-size birds with
the large white wing patches. Usually they will make themselves
known with a loud, very raucous call just before you get a brief
glimpse of them flying across the river. Their frequent and sonorous
drumming begins loud, then becomes more rapid and softer
towards the end.
The presence of pileateds is also detected by large elliptical holes
in tree trunks, often seen in the large cedars and white pines on
the riverbanks. Preferring dense, old, and mature woods, (ancient
forests) these birds were quite uncommon twenty or thirty years
ago in the eastern forests. However, with the increase in the amount
of undisturbed old growth there seems to be more "log-cocks", as
they were often called by former generations of woods people. I
might add, the pileated was the obvious prototype
for "Woody Woodpecker."
In addition to the above, we occasionally see red-headed
(Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and red-bellied (Melanerpes
carolinus) woodpeckers just south of the Au Sable system.
I've seen the red-bellied in Roscommon County, so I wouldn't be
surprised to find one on the South Branch some day.
Some days I've considered committing great mayhem on my
noisy and uninvited visitor. But what if he were after ants or some
other infestation? Wouldn't that be like killing the messenger?
Author's Note: I relied heavily on an article in the December,
1992 issue of Birding, the magazine of the American
Birding Association, for the different drumming descriptions.
~ Charles Weaver
The Anglers of the Au Sable, we thank them for use permission.
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