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Northland Nature: A pair of pileated woodpeckers

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 via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers find food on the ground during an early spring day. The female is in the foreground. Note more red on the male's crest and a red marking "mustache" beneath the eye. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The morning is cloudy, calm and cool with a temperature in the mid-20s. Later in the day, the skies may break to be partially clear and the calm could become windy, as often happens in March. But as I walk at dawn, I think conditions are great.

When calm and cloudy, I find it is very good for hearing the sounds of the local wildlife. During my walk, I pause often to listen. The snowpack, receding much, is still present at many sites, especially on the north-facing slopes. Snow is crusty now in the chilly morning, but becomes wet with the warming afternoon.

Before leaving the yard, I see that a recently-awaken chipmunk has joined the squirrels here. Deer are easy to see as they go in the open sites scattered among the melting snowpack. Among the birds, it is the usuals that I hear first. Ravens, crows and blue jays have been companions in my recent morning walks.

Now, their sounds are joined by white-breasted nuthatches calling in the woods. These small birds that have been here all winter, mostly silent, now give their nasal “yank, yank” calls. In the distance, I hear flocks of Canada geese and vocals from trumpeter swans. Occasionally, I see them fly over. Turkeys that have been so active in the woods and yard recently have started gobbling in the calm early morning. A barred owl gives an encore call to the passing night.

Late March is also when I hear another sound in the receding darkness: the call of a displaying woodcock. Welcoming the new light are songs of red-winged blackbirds and drumming of ruffed grouse. But the drumming of a different kind is a regular part of these early-spring morning walks: the drumming of woodpeckers.


Having a long and powerful beak, these woodland birds find a branch or trunk to hold on to and with repeated hits, they send out a sound that permeates the forest. Such sounds are usually noted as proclamations of territory. Woodpecker drumming has been happening for weeks. The mid-sized hairy woodpeckers began to drum already in January. I have heard them in very cold, but usually clear, winter days.

This drumming noise has become more common as we progressed into early spring. Hairy woodpeckers have been joined by three others that wintered with us: downy, red-bellied and especially the pileated woodpeckers. When these large birds find a location to pound on, they make sounds that resonate throughout the woods and beyond.

As winter residents, they made sporadic appearances at the feeder, where they remained mostly silent. But now, in the longer days, they drum and often give their “wicker, wicker” calls to get a territory to nest in, but also to attract a mate.

I’ve seen them often, but usually alone. That made a recent visit more interesting since it was a pair that arrived in the yard. Males and females are about the same size. Males have more red on the crest and a red “mustache” under the eye.

Instead of going to a tree trunk, they landed and stayed on the ground. Here, they appeared to feed on seeds under the feeder, but more likely fed on insects. They used their long tongues in the soil to catch a meal. This mated pair appeared to be feeding together on this spring day.

It was a great sight to see and I expect that they will also nest nearby.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber


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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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