The ‘art’ of trackin’ woodpeckers

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

“All you need are ears to track woodpeckers.” This quote from my nine-year-old son Leif sums up what he would say if he wrote a column about tracking woodpeckers. And Leif’s right, woodpeckers often announce their presence in an area quite loudly when vocalizing, drumming, or excavating trees for food and homes. Eyes can come in handy, of course, when observing the loads of sign woodpeckers leave behind after feeding or actually seeing the birds. With a fine combination of listening and looking one can learn a ton about what local woodpeckers are up to.

To generalize, woodpeckers are neither the sneakiest of animals nor the hardest of animals to track. Finding an old paper birch riddled with old woodpecker holes is not uncommon in the St. George woods and neither is finding an apple tree with row after row of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes lining the bark. A pile of fresh “shrapnel” wood chips under such trees clues an observer to how recent, and how frequent a tree or area is visited as a lunch stop. Sometimes the wood is so fresh you can still hear the woodpecker pecking while searching for ants, grubs or any other tasty morsel that sticks to their extra-long tongues!

Pileated woodpecker

Early in the breeding season the loud, echoing calls of local Hairy, Downy and Pileated woodpeckers rang through the St. George woods as territories were laid claim to. When a woodpecker’s throat gets tired from calling they move on to their favorite “drumming” branches to lay down a beat that can also be heard over distances. The acoustics of such branches act to amplify a woodpecker’s pecking, turning an effortless pecking rhythm into a booming bass drum in an act of true non-vocal communication. These are the activities that Leif was thinking about with his quote. For a time it seemed like every woodpecker around wanted to be heard and the tracking was easy!

Any rogue woodpecker that enters an established territory is taken as a threat and is met with a cacophony of calls and displays to relay a message of displeasure. These non-contact “battles” can be quite comical to watch, and even harder to miss when dueling woodpeckers are chasing and screaming their way through a set of trees.

Breeding season brings associated activities such as mating, cavity-excavating, egg-laying and all that. Active woodpecker nests in the earliest stages can be tricky to find as adults stay quiet during incubation and keep the coming and going to a minimum. Once the eggs hatch, however, activity picks up and nests can be (somewhat) easily found. This is my favorite part of tracking woodpeckers and June happens to be the month for finding woodpecker nests. What luck! What timing!

Hairy woodpecker nest

Once woodpeckers hatch they start begging (typical) in a continual effort to remind their parents that they are still alive and that they are hungry all the time. With a little imagination the young woodpecker- begging calls sound like a cat purring and the “purring” chorus from a nest with three nestling woodpeckers can be heard from over 100 feet away. At first, the young are too small to reach the cavity opening, but over the course of a few weeks they gain enough size to where they are able to poke their heads (one at a time) through the opening and beg unfiltered. Now the “purring” can be heard even further away, making the tracking and locating of a nest that much easier. Simply follow the purring to the nest tree and then search for the cavity opening—it can be that simple!

With the nest in hand (not literally) I like to find a spot from a safe distance to watch the action as the babies grow. Adult woodpeckers will call as they approach the nest, letting the nestlings know a meal is on its way. When the youngsters are small, adult woodpeckers will completely enter the cavity to feed and may hang out inside for a bit. Sometimes adults can be seen leaving the cavity carrying a white sac in their bill. These are “fecal sacs”, which are essentially “packaged poop” which the adult will carry and dispose of away from the nest tree. Fecal sacs are great adaptions if you want to keep a nest zone free of smells and stains. Those are some pretty dedicated parents!

No bike ride in June is complete without hearing at least one woodpecker nest, and on a decent ride I may pass three or more roadside nests with countless others too far for my ears to register. Whether on the trails, walking roadside or pooting around on a bike (that’s what I do) listen for the “purring of the woodpeckers”­­—you may be rewarded with a view of woodpeckers only a few weeks old, or an adult carrying a fecal sac. Either way, June is baby bird month (not officially) and with a little listening and looking neighborhood woodpeckers and their nests can be on your radar and the observing will begin! Another in the endless list of reasons to go outside!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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