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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Woodpecker Serenade

Air Date: Week of April 3, 1998

In New Hampshire, the earliest sounds of Spring are now being heard. Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery wrote to tell us that she's enjoying the cacophony. But, she says one of her neighbors doesn't like the percussion section. Commentator Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author who lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

Transcript

CURWOOD: In New Hampshire, the earliest sounds of spring are now being heard. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery wrote to tell us that she's enjoying the cacophony, but she says one of her neighbors doesn't like the percussion section.

(A woodpecker pecking)

MONTGOMERY: The woman called New Hampshire Audubon in desperation. This bird was driving her crazy. Every morning at daybreak the creature started hammering away at the metal flashing around her chimney. From the big bill and the black and white feathers, she recognized the culprit as some sort of woodpecker. Yet this was clearly no place for a woodpecker to excavate a hole for a home. Nor did any tasty bugs live in the metal. "So what's wrong with this bird?" the caller asked. "Is he just stupid?"

Far from it. Possibly, he was a genius. The woodpecker wasn't trying to make a hole. He was making music. The territorial love songs of woodpeckers, among the earliest bird songs of spring, are not voiced but hammered. Usually the instrument of choice is a tree. But this woodpecker had gone one better. By choosing metal as his drum skin, the bird had made a technological breakthrough, increasing the range of his broadcast several fold.

Happily, most woodpeckers don't hammer on houses, but neither will just any tree do. The birds carefully choose trees of special resonance, often hollow or dry dying ones. This time of year, you might see a woodpecker ascending a trunk trying out different spots, playing the tree like a xylophone.

Like song birds' melodies, woodpeckers' tattoos help them stake out territories, attract mates, and generally synchronize a couple's idea about nesting. In some ways drumming is richer than song. The repertoire of the hairy woodpecker, for instance, includes 9 different kinds of drumming. And unlike most song birds, in which only the males sing, in most woodpeckers the concerts are co-ed.

Downy woodpeckers have only 6 vocalizations, but 8 different kinds of drumming, each for a different circumstance. Dawn drumming calls for a rendezvous with a mate. Males drum to invite copulation. The great birder Edward Howe Forbush once wrote about how a woodpecker enlivened his visit to a desolate forest late one winter. "There," he wrote, "on a cold day with a piercing cold northwest wind rattling in the dry branches, a red-headed woodpecker in a sunny nook tapped away as merrily on a dead branch as if summer zephyrs were blowing."

No mere noise could so eloquently evoke warmth and light in the dark of winter. That's the music of the woodpecker's tattoo. Think of it as the drum roll announcing the coming of spring.

(A woodpecker taps, with music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author who lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

 

 

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