Nature Watch: The Beat Goes On

Author: Steve Ellis | 02/28/24

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


A staccato of sharp raps is heard from the dead top of a tall spruce. A woodpecker is drumming, as sure a sign of spring as any robin’s warbled song.

Woodpeckers are unable to sing, so they rely on other methods of communication, including drumming.  This is accomplished by rapidly striking the bill against wood or some human-made material. Only the head and neck muscles are used, and not those of the whole body as when excavating a nest cavity.

Woodpeckers drum for a variety of reasons, including territorial defense, mate attraction, and maintenance of pair bonds. Males do the majority of drumming, but females may join with their mates in a duet or drum on their own.

There are other reasons for drumming or tapping. Mated pairs may each pick out what they deem to be the best site for creating a nest cavity. These “arguments” may last for some time before one or the other gives in. Woodpeckers also drum to vent frustration, or when they feel threatened. An individual might perform a drumroll to signal their readiness to take over incubation duties. Whatever the reason, drumming is usually done on snags or dead branches. Live trees have more water in their cells, which dampens resonance.

Each woodpecker species has its own drumroll and tempo rate. The sparrow-sized Downy has a tempo of 16 to 18 beats per second, with a roll that lasts about 1.5 seconds. Northern Flickers have a tempo of 22 beats, with a roll lasting just over a second. Pileated Woodpeckers are the percussion champions, with a tempo of 15 beats a second, while the roll lasts up to 3 seconds. Their drumming can be heard over half a mile away, and a complete ‘set’ may last as long as 3 hours.

Some experts are able to identify species by the sound of the drumming, but this is difficult because of variations among individual birds. The Red-breasted Sapsucker is by far the easiest to recognize – their drumming starts with a rapid tempo of 22 beats per second, and then continues after a short pause with a few raps at a slower rate as if the bird were losing enthusiasm.

Woodpeckers are arguably the most important bird species of the forest. They eat insects that harm trees and produce nesting chambers that become available for use by other bird species or small mammals.  Sometimes they inadvertently introduce pathogens to otherwise healthy trees. Eventually, those trees weaken, die, and fall to the forest floor, opening up growing space for new generations. In time, these trees too will be used by woodpeckers for feeding, nesting and drumming.

The beat goes on…

Hairy Woodpecker’s have the fastest drumming tempo in our area. Photo by Martha Ellis.

Fauna: Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

Anyone walking through a coniferous forest in March has heard Hairy Woodpecker drumrolls.

Hairy Woodpeckers are 8 to 9 inches in length, with a heavy, straight bill. The back, wings and tails are black with white areas (sometimes pale yellowish), while the undersides are a dingy white. Males have a red spot on the back of the head.

Wood-boring beetles and their larvae are the mainstay of the Hairy Woodpecker diet.  Also eaten are fruits, seeds and sap. We once watched a female feeding salmonberries to her recently fledged young.

Drumming Hairy Woodpeckers have the fastest tempo in our area, with 25 beats per second in a roll that lasts about 1 second. Mated pairs stay together year-round and may bond for life. Their 3 to 6 young fledge a month after hatching.

Hairy Woodpeckers are homebodies, rarely venturing outside their territories. This behavior differs from their smaller cousins, Downy Woodpeckers, which frequently join mixed flocks of other bird species during the post-breeding period.

Abandoned Hairy Woodpecker holes are coveted real estate for chickadees, nuthatches and wrens, species that find it difficult to excavate their own nesting cavities.

Look and listen for Hairy Woodpeckers in hemlock, spruce and fir forests. You can attract them to your property by offering suet in a suitable feeder.

The seeds of Sitka Spruce trees are held in 3-inch cones and are so tiny that it takes 210,000 to weigh a pound. Photo by Martha Ellis.

Flora: Sitka Spruce (Pica sitchensis)

Sitka spruce is a tree of superlatives. It’s the tallest of the world’s spruce species, reaching over 180 feet in height. The wood is light but strong, outdoing steel pound for pound in strength.

Typical Sitka spruce branches are long and tend to be horizontal. The bark is gray brown and develops scales with age. Needles are stiff, sharp, and grow on all sides of the branches.

Seeds of this intriguing species are held in cylindrical, 3-inch cones that have papery scales. The seeds are tiny; it takes 210,000 to weigh a pound.

This fast-growing tree is mainly a coastal species, with some living in river valleys. It is highly tolerant of brackish conditions and thrives where it is splashed by sea spray. Taking root and growing from a log or stump is another measure of its adaptability.

Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins, two members of the finch family, eat the seeds, as do chipmunks and Douglas squirrels. I once timed one of the latter shucking the seeds from spruce cones. It averaged less than a minute to strip a cone bare.

Deer browse the new growth that emerges in late spring. River otters sometimes create dens under Sitka spruce root systems.

Look for this fascinating species along Whidbey Island’s west side bluffs and in forest bogs.

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