If you’ve been out for a walk in the woods lately, you may have heard woodpeckers drumming. We have just entered the main drum period for many species, which typically occurs between February and June. Late February through to late April is a great time to take note of woodpecker drumming, as it happens before the arrival of flashy, distracting subjects such as warblers! Did you know that with practice, some species of woodpeckers are by their drums? It is in their tempo, frequency, and intensity, rather than their volume that they are best identified. Note, however, that there are overlap and variation in woodpecker drums. The information below is merely a summary of the averages noted in major field guides. Regardless of what is described in the literature, it is good practice to follow up on drums for visuals, or wait on vocalizations if visuals cannot be obtained!
Red-bellied Woodpecker: Averages a medium speed and even tempo to their drum, at 18 beats per second. Listen for vocalizations, such as “kwirr” call, to confirm to species.
Red-headed Woodpecker: Averages a medium speed and even tempo to their drum. One potential identification cue could be the relatively vast gaps of time in between drum-bouts. Listen for vocalizations, such as the harsh “kweeah” call, to confirm to species.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: A very distinctive, syncopated “Jazz” drum. The drum has a slow, decelerating rhythm. This species’ drumming becomes instantly recognizable with practice.
Downy Woodpecker: Slowest tempo (averaging 15 notes per second). For classic drums, one can “visualize” their drum as having distinct spaces in between their notes. From Pieplow (2017), “slow speed alone may be sufficient for identification in some regions.” Note however there is overlap in calls and drumming birds should be waited upon for calls or sought out for visual confirmation.
Hairy Woodpecker: Fastest, on average. Hairy average 25 notes per second. They have a rapid, forceful drum. Spaces between the notes cannot be perceived (visualized). At certain times of the year in Ottawa, such as late winter (February/March), a rapid, steady drum is likely that of a drumming Hairy Woodpecker.
Northern Flicker: Very similar to Hairy Woodpecker. Once they arrive in numbers here in eastern ON (March-April), they are not safely identified by their drum. Not sure about the “Deep South” of Ontario. Luckily for observers, they are a vocal species. Wait to hear vocalizations to confirm to species (you likely won’t have to wait long).
Pileated Woodpecker: A powerful drum, which both accelerates in rhythm and fades in volume near the end of the drum. This style is slightly akin to a pin pong ball bouncing on a table. Can be identified by their drum alone, with practice.
Black-backed Woodpecker: Averages a medium-paced tempo (similar beats per second to Red-bellied, at 16-18), with a slightly accelerating finish. Listen for vocalizations to confirm to species.
The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition. David Allen Sibley. 2014
Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. Nathan Pieplow. 2017