Lighter Side
April 5th, 1999

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.

Ladder-backed woodpecker

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 condominiums.

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

From The Anglers of the Au Sable, we thank them for use permission.

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