A Rude Awakening

Have you ever been startled out of a sound sleep by a woodpecker hammering on your gutter just before sunrise? It’s a common annual occurrence and is something that’s poised to begin again soon if it hasn’t started already. It can be enough to drive the family dog into an uncontrollable frenzy even before six o’clock in the morning.

Each spring, when a male woodpecker stakes out his territory, he taps out his claim in woodpecker Morse Code on anything that will resonate his message throughout his chosen realm. Males of all woodpecker species do it and oftentimes a response to that claim will reverberate from an objecting male pounding out a challenge on an equally percussive object a short distance away. And of course, potential mates will sometimes answer with a staccato call as well.

In the wild, woodpeckers drum on hollow logs or dead trees to announce their presence but closer to civilization their instruments of choice could be anything from your gutter or satellite dish to the lid on your trash can. A few years ago, I photographed a pair of rival yellow-bellied sapsuckers jack-hammering the plywood backing on the posted signs at opposite corners of my property. They were relentless in their claim-and-counter-claim territorial dispute and the plywood resounded like the metal rim on a snare drum at a rock concert in the morning stillness for days on end.

Unlike the other small birds that glorify springtime sunrises with melodious birdsong, woodpeckers lack a singing voice and resort to drumming instead. Different species employ a variety of distinctive rhythms, which vary in tempo and length. Their thick skulls and straight bills enable the birds to hammer repeatedly without injury and on still days their drumming can echo over great distances.

In some cases, woodpecker hammering can cause damage to roofing, siding, or other components around the homestead but for the most part it’s usually harmless. So the next time a woodpecker wakes you out of a sound sleep, just remember that love is in the air. It’s just that the love song can be rather annoying to anyone who’s not a woodpecker.

adamski_portraitstory and photos by John Adamski

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