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Northland Nature: Woodpeckers drum in February

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.

Male hairy woodpecker on the trunk of a tree
A male hairy woodpecker on the trunk of a tree. Note the red spot on the back of its head. On such sites, they will drum on mid-winter days.
Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas

February, with 28 days, is our shortest month. Ironically, for some who may be winter weary, this month can feel like the longest. We are still in winter and spring can look like it is far out on the horizon, several weeks away.

This month can give quite a variety of temperatures. It could be very cold, as seen in the record-setting days of February 2021, but can also give us mild days with readings in the 40s and 50s.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

Not only our shortest month, February is also our driest month. We have had some snowstorms at this time, but usually snows during these weeks are not like other winter months. Among many of us, the days may feel like they are slow moving, not leaving mid-winter in a hurry.

However, in another way, February is a month of quick changes.

We began the month with nine and a half hours of daylight and by Feb. 8, it had become 10 hours. As we exit the month, this will lengthen to be 11 hours. Subzero temperatures can and often do persist until the end, but with longer times of sunlight, things are happening. I notice changes with our wintering birds.

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On a recent morning, I looked out at the bird feeder and watched a large breakfast celebration of at least 50 redpolls in the cold. With fluffed-up feathers, chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays were here, too. I stepped out for my morning walk when it was 10 degrees below zero, clear and calm. A colorful lingering sunrise prevailed in the southeast.

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.

In these pleasant winter conditions, I walked on my usual road route. I take this same trek nearly every day, but there is always more news to observe. This morning was no exception.

The ever-present crows and ravens were calling as though the temperature was irrelevant. These large black birds were joined by their smaller cousin, the blue jays. A white-breasted nuthatch added its grunting call from the nearby woods. But one of the loudest in this chilly morning was not a call, but a different sound coming from other wintering birds.

From sites scattered in the woods that I walk by, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Drumming is when these birds take their powerful bills and hit it rapidly against a tree trunk or branches to make a “drumming” sound. Drumming is a woodpecker’s way of proclaiming territorial ownership, a pre-mating behavior at this time.

With some searching, I found the bird, a hairy woodpecker, as the noise maker. Larger than its look-alike, the downy woodpecker, the hairy is also black and white and about 10 inches long.

Birds are permanent residents and frequently come to suet at the feeder. Males, with a red spot on the back of the head, are the ones to do their drumming. I began hearing the drumming of hairy woodpeckers in January, almost always on cold clear calm mornings. (A few years ago, I heard and watched one drumming on a morning of 40 degrees below zero.)

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.

As I continued my walk, I listened to another drumming coming from deeper in the woods. This one was louder and more deeply resonating, a pileated woodpecker. These huge woodpeckers, about 17 inches long, also begin their drumming now. This was the first that I heard from the pileated this season.

It may be mid-winter, weeks before spring, but these woodpeckers that do not migrate are using their bills to prepare for the breeding season in their way. They drum on cold clear mornings, a step toward spring.

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MORE BY LARRY WEBER:
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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