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Northland Nature: Woodpecker drumming winter to spring

A male hairy woodpecker feeds on suet in late winter. They frequently use their beaks to drum on trees at this time, to proclaim home territory and to try to get the attention of a mate. Photo by Larry Weber

The first two months of this year gave us much to remember. Near record-setting cold on some late-January days followed by a record-setting snow of February definitely impacted the lives of those who remained here all winter.

Early March really does not need to be unusual to make weather news. This time can and often is pretty impressive. Any of us who have spent years watching the Northland weather can recall days during the first part of this month when the temperature dropped to near 30 degrees below zero, and conversely in other years, the mercury reach up to 70 degrees.

Along with this 100-degree variation have been other phenomena. March may give us blizzards and other snowfall that can total up to 3 feet in these weeks, or we may get no snow. Rains and ice are not unheard of in these 31 days.

With all this variation of weather that may or may not be happening, a constant is the longer days of sunlight as we grow through March. Beginning with eleven hours, we bask in about 12.75 bright hours by the end. And we say goodbye to the winter, we welcome spring on the vernal equinox.

Despite the thickness of the snowpack, most for the whole year, the lengthening days with more and bright sunlight gets us and other critters feeling the spring. I find the south- and west-facing sites in the March sun is where we see early melt and causes us to look for more spring happenings. It may be too early to expect migrant songbirds in the yard, but a few others may be in the region: a couple of hawks, eagles and crows are likely early migrants.

But the birds that wintered with us are responding to the longer days as well. Walks at dawn in the growing morning light are made more interesting with calls from crows, ravens, blue jays and another daily sound: the drumming of woodpeckers.

I have been seeing them all winter and like many others, I have hosted three kinds of woodpecker on the suet feeders: downy, hairy and red-bellied. Downies are the smallest with hairy and red-bellied about the same size. A couple of times in the cold season, the large pileated woodpeckers have come by, too, but mostly these huge birds stay back in the woods.

Besides their appearances at the feeders, I have heard from the woodpeckers several times in the winter. Back in January, a couple of clear mornings that registered far below zero were made more interesting as I heard the drumming of a woodpecker. When getting close for a look, I could observe a hairy woodpecker in its drumming mood.

When most songbirds use vocals as a way to claim ownership to a breeding territory or attract a mate, the woodpeckers use what is best for them. They find a tree trunk or a branch and using their powerful beaks and muscles, they rap the wood with a number of poundings in rapid sequence. This "noise" is called drumming, and most woodpeckers do this in the spring.

Sometimes our houses are the chosen site for their proclamations and it is hard to not notice such resonating sounds. But now in early March, all or any of these four wintering woodpeckers can and will be out in the calm of the mornings to prepare for their mates and homes with their drumming.

Despite the changes of the month, such woodpecker sounds are a regular phenomenon.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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