Woodpecker drumming of late FebruaryEach year, late February is marked by a dramatic natural phenomenon. It is at this time, as we end the short month, that lengthening days become more noticeable.
Each year, late February is marked by a dramatic natural phenomenon. It is at this time, as we end the short month, that lengthening days become more noticeable. At last, the commuter can travel in light in both the morning and evening.
As we exit this month, we note a sunrise before 7 a.m. and a sun setting about 6 p.m., for 11 hours of daylight. The spring equinox is only three weeks away. Though temperatures and snowfalls can still be winter-like, the longer days tell us that the trend is changing, that the cold season is waning.
Northlanders, winter-weary or not, delight in the longer days. But we are not the only residents to mark this passage. All of nearby nature seems to respond to this increasing light.
With the mild winter this year, we’ve already noted the opening of buds on willows and aspen along with the bright red branches of the red-osier dogwoods. But there’s more among the trees. It is now that I always see the circles of melted snow at the base of deciduous trees and, with the warming temperatures, maybe even an early flow of sap. Squirrels move through the trees in their pre-mating rituals while rabbits do theirs below.
In the world of birds, crow flocks, including wintering ones and some early migrants, gather often in noisy crowds. Out in the fields and roadsides, we might see migrating groups of snow buntings or horned larks.
But we can see bird happenings right in our yards. The chickadees that provided plenty of delightful companionship through the cold and dark times now welcome the brighter days with their spring “feebee” songs. And wintering nuthatches add their nasal yanking calls as well. But none are more regular to greet me each morning than the drumming woodpeckers.
Most songbirds proclaim territorial ownership and court their mates with a series of melodious tunes as we approach the breeding season. Such songs have made this group of small birds very well loved and popular with the general public.
Woodpeckers, though classified as songbirds, will call in a language of their own, but now we can hear them making another sound: drumming. With a lifestyle that makes use of a powerful bill and absorbent cells in their heads, these birds hammer away at tree trunks and branches to get food throughout the winter.
As the cold season moves on, they make use of these same body parts to announce a territory to others of their kind telling all that this site is taken. And hopefully get a nearby female to take note.
Though the number can vary a bit, three kinds of woodpeckers are most likely to winter with us, and they demonstrate a small, medium and large. Small and medium are the downy and hairy woodpeckers, respectively. Both are similar with black-white stripes. The male has a red spot on the back of its head. They readily come to birdfeeder suet all winter.
Much bigger is the crested pileated woodpecker. This crow-sized bird is also mostly black and white, but shows a large amount of red on its head. This resident trio was mostly quiet throughout the winter, but now they look over the trees within their locale and select a hollow one that will resonate loudly when hit.
Here the males settle and rap the wood in a series of pounding movements that we call drumming. This is done frequently during the day, but mostly in the morning. During these calm hours, the sounds travel further. Many a homeowner has awakened to a woodpecker that has chosen a part of the house siding to send out the drumming message.
Though downy and hairy woodpeckers have been guilty of this, I find that such unappreciated alarm clock sounds are more likely made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a migrant arriving here in April.
Now in late February, the woodpecker drumming in yards, parks and woods joins with other nature happenings to tell us of the coming spring. And that is worth waking up for.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.