Constable: Woodpeckers are nature's drum soloists

  • That racket coming from a woodpecker in your suburban neighborhood probably wasn't made by this redheaded variety, which isn't as common as it used to be.

    That racket coming from a woodpecker in your suburban neighborhood probably wasn't made by this redheaded variety, which isn't as common as it used to be. Courtesy of Derek Rosenberger

  • Hard to see against the bark of a tree, this northern flicker variety of woodpecker makes his presence known through loud pecking. Pecking this time of year is part of the way a woodpecker attracts a mate.

    Hard to see against the bark of a tree, this northern flicker variety of woodpecker makes his presence known through loud pecking. Pecking this time of year is part of the way a woodpecker attracts a mate. Courtesy of Derek Rosenberger

  • As an assistant professor of biology at Olivet Nazarene University in Bournbannais, Derek Rosenberger is leading a study to see why the population of redheaded woodpeckers is on the decline in Illinois.

    As an assistant professor of biology at Olivet Nazarene University in Bournbannais, Derek Rosenberger is leading a study to see why the population of redheaded woodpeckers is on the decline in Illinois. Courtesy of Derek Rosenberger

 
 
Updated 4/26/2018 6:22 AM

It's too early on a weekday morning to be hammering, but this guy is a machine. He must be a professional with some sort of pneumatic nail gun, as the banging is faster and more consistent than a typical homeowner could manage.

Then you spot the culprit -- a small woodpecker going to town on the side of a neighbor's house.

 

"They're kind of noisy," says Derek Rosenberger, an assistant professor of biology at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais who is leading a research project focusing on the dwindling population of redheaded woodpeckers.

The suburbs are home to seven species of woodpeckers. The majestic pileated woodpecker, about the size of a crow with a flaming red crest on top of its head, prefers to nest in large, dead trees, and dead trees are rare in suburban lawns, so we rarely spot one outside a forest preserve.

Downy woodpeckers are 5 to 6 inches tall, with white bellies and a patch of red on the head. Downies, and the slightly larger and less colorful hairy woodpeckers, are common in the suburbs and often can be seen eating at backyard bird feeders.

The red-bellied woodpecker, which also sports a red cap; northern flicker, which features a little yellow under the wings; and yellow-bellied sapsucker, which has a red forehead patch, live throughout the suburbs.

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"The redheaded woodpecker, their populations have declined tremendously," Rosenberger says. Those birds, with red heads and necks and distinctive white marking on the underside of their wings, prefer the grasslands of a savanna, and those landscapes aren't as plentiful in the suburbs and across the state as they once were.

"They actually stand out on a dead branch and fly over the savanna to catch insects," Rosenberger says.

While woodpeckers peck into the wood of trees and houses to look for tasty insects, the birds have ulterior motives this time of year.

"Right now is breeding season, and one of the ways woodpeckers declare territory and attract mates is by pecking," Rosenberger says. "If you have a nice hollow tree, that is a nice place to drum. If you have a nice hollow house, that's a nice place to drum because it's loud."

Suburban woodpeckers will peck on vinyl siding, gutters or even metal pipes to attract a mate.

"That sort of behavior decreases in the late spring," says Rosenberger. Still, the internet is lousy with ways to get rid of woodpeckers, and many of them are illegal. Woodpeckers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Illinois Wildlife Code, which means you can't trap them, harm them, or move their nests or eggs without an official permit. Violators face up to six months in jail and could be fined $15,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Pinwheels and wind chimes might scare away a woodpecker, but many suburbanites probably would prefer the occasional pecking from a woodpecker over garish pinwheels or annoying wind chimes.

When they are looking to eat insects, woodpeckers perform a valuable service. "Woodpeckers are really the most effective way to identify trees that have emerald ash borers," Rosenberger says. Likewise, woodpeckers can alert homeowners to a potential insect problem in their house.

So relax. Enjoy the mating call of the woodpecker. If you are not a fan, treat their noise the same as you did back in your days as a concertgoer at Led Zeppelin, Rush, Judas Priest or Iron Butterfly. Use the drum solo as an opportunity to run errands.

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