Knock on wood?
During springtime, it is common to hear woodpeckers not only “drumming” on trees but also man-made objects, but are they confused, or do they have an amazing skill?
There are four species of woodpeckers found in Portugal – the Iberian green woodpecker with its loud laugh-sounding call, the elusive wryneck and both the lesser and great spotted woodpeckers.
The Iberian green and wryneck seldom drum as they have much weaker beaks than the lesser and great spotted woodpeckers, so it is usually these you hear making loud drumming noises.
Many people think that the loud noise is the bird opening a new hole to nest inside, but it is actually a form of communication, one that is used to attract the opposite sex. It is used in the same way many other bird species sing and call.
Drumming is not only confined to trees; man-made objects are also selected. I often read on social media “these poor birds are confused”; not at all, quite the opposite. He or she, as both sexes drum, need to drum as loud as possible. Of course, not only does the sound travel further, but also makes their appearance bolder and stronger, a crucial attraction to the opposite sex.
There are many man-made objects that resonate sound much better than wood. Concrete electricity and telephone poles make an incredible noise when drummed and so do metal panels such as the tops of streetlights.
Wooden telephone poles are also a favourite as the dried, treated wood makes a loud noise. I have also witnessed intelligence even higher. Locally, there is an open field with many wooden telephone poles. One in particular has a lot of damage from drumming whilst the others are largely untouched.
It confused me for a while until one day I was walking in the field when a great spotted woodpecker started to drum. In front of me was this favourite pole, behind me a ruined farm building. The sound of the drumming echoes off the wall of the building creating a much larger volume. Very clever birds, don’t you agree?
The great spotted woodpecker is unmistakable, around the same size as a blackbird at around 22cm in length and a wingspan of up to 40cm. It has striking black and white contrasting plumage with a red under-tail. The male has a distinctive red patch on the back of its head. Juveniles have a red crown. Apart from the loud drumming noise, the great spotted woodpecker has a loud “kik” call.
The lesser spotted woodpecker is not a rare bird as often thought. The name lesser spotted refers to the size and colouring – think smaller spotted, with the opposite being the great spotted (there is also a medium spotted woodpecker, but it is not found in Portugal).
The colouring of the lesser spotted is similar to that of the great spotted woodpecker, but the red under-tail is absent. The male also has a red crown rather than on the back of the head.
The call of the lesser spotted woodpecker is a quieter, cuter laughing sound of the green woodpecker. Although they can drum quite loud, they are not as loud as the great spotted. They are only sparrow-sized, so it is very easy to overlook them.
The area around my home near São Marcos da Serra has a large population of lesser spotted woodpeckers and, as I type this article, there is a male drumming on a palm tree in the garden.
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography