Poems About Woodpeckers

Ten different species of woodpeckers have been recorded in Vermont.  The largest is the Pileated (around 17 inches) and the smallest is the Downy (around 5.5 inches).  These birds become more evident in the fall and winter. The sound of their drumming easily travels through the bare branches of the winter forest, while their black bodies and red caps stand out against the white snow.  

The woodpecker’s behavior of tapping its beak against wooden surfaces actual serves a couple of different purposes. First, woodpeckers use their chisel like beaks to excavate parts of a tree in search of food or to create a nesting sight.

The second reason woodpeckers tap on trees is to establish territory, or to attract a mate.  This behavior is called “drumming”.  You can usually tell if a woodpecker is drumming versus looking for food because the tapping is much faster. Woodpeckers will look for any resonating surface in order to do this drumming. That is why you sometimes see woodpeckers tapping on sheds or even metal structures.    

The drumming and tapping of the woodpeckers make them both noticeable and unique. As a result, there are several poems written about them. 

Pileated Woodpecker: Photo Credit Simon Boivin
Pileated Woodpecker-Photo Credit: Simon Boivin; Macaulay Library

Woodpecker Poems

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who often wrote about the natural world, wrote this short poetic observation of the woodpecker.

“The Woodpecker” by Emily Dickinson

His bill an auger is,
His head, a cap and frill.
He laboreth at every tree,—
A worm his utmost goal.

I really like Emily’s poem.  It is simple and to the point. However, woodpeckers tend to eat more insects, grubs, ants, fruits and berries than they do worms. 


Kenneth Slade Alling (1887- 1966) published this next poem in the May 1945 issue of Poetry Magazine.

“Woodpecker” by Kenneth Slade Alling

The pastel shades in sky, on hill,
His pastel breast, that bird’s, repeats,
As with his opulent design
He walks December’s naked streets.
Like on who visits house to house
He goes about the winter boughs
 
Come spring, come summer; autumn, come,
Progenitors of this and see
The waxing grandeur of this room;
Perceive yourselves’ maturity
Stand here beside me now and view
The year itself, divest of you.

What I like about this poem is that it puts the woodpecker in the winter woods and makes reference to the year-round presence.  Many woodpecker species do not migrate with the seasons thus making them great subjects for winter birding activities.

Down Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker-Photo Credit: Jay McGowan: Macaulay Library

Woodpeckers in Haiku

The woodpecker is associated with the autumn season in the haiku tradition. This is again a result of how easy they are to see and hear during this time. The following haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) contrasts the sound of tapping against the quietness of his home. 

But for a woodpecker
tapping at a post, no sound
at all in the house
-Basho

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) also wrote a few haiku about woodpeckers.

is the woodpecker
stopping to listen too?
evening's wooden drum
-Issa
woodpecker
busy appraising
the meditation hut
-Issa

Now that we know that a woodpecker’s tapping can serve different purposes, it is interesting to think whether the woodpecker in the first haiku was looking for food, whereas the second one might have been looking for a mate.  


Finally, poet and cartoonist Shel Silverstein gives us this humorous look at the woodpeckers behavior.  This poem, “Peckin’” comes from his book, A Light in the Attic.

The saddest thing I ever did see
Was a woodpecker peckin’ at a plastic tree.
He looks at me, and “Friend” says he,
“Things ain’t as sweet as they used to be”
Shel Silverstein Poems

Resources:

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24 thoughts on “Poems About Woodpeckers

Add yours

  1. Our local Great Spotted Woodpeckers have taken to drumming on telegraph poles in early spring …

    poles apart woodpecker telegraph each other

    1. Hi Dave, I forgot about Silverstein’s work prior to this research. A Light in the Attic was my favorite book growing up. It was so nice to revisit that. It also made me think about some of your work and like the Dancing Fish.

      1. Great for you to have that reconnection with Silverstein’s poems and remembrance of your childhood. Silverstein was a big influence on the poems in “The Dancing Fish.” I’m touched that you thought of my poems in reference to him.

  2. A couple of months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially declared Florida’s ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. I found this to be incredibly sad. Some folks believe it may still exist, but the way we humans go about destroying everything leaves me doubtful. Here’s a link to an article if you’re interested: https://phys.org/news/2021-10-florida-ivory-billed-woodpecker-extinctbut.html

    There were woodpeckers on the farm where I grew up, although they were relatively rare. There’s nothing quite like that sharp clap-back echo of a woodpecker on a tree, or the incessant drumming on the outside wall of your bedroom as you’re trying to sleep! 😀 I loved poetry you included in this piece. I sort of expected Basho and Issa to have written about woodpeckers (and I’m glad they did). Emily Dickenson’s poem was a real gem that I’d never read before. Alling’s poem had a nice structure to it. All in all, another top-notch offering from you, Mark. Always a delight to see what you’re up to with these articles. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for the update on the ivory billed woodpecker. The last I remembered was that there were some potential sightings a couple of years ago. Probably nothing since then which would lead to the extinction notice. So unfortunate.
      I am glad you enjoyed the piece! Another fun bit of research. Thanks for the continued support. Talk soon,

  3. Thanks. Inspired the following:

    woodpecker’s tattoo
    in leafless December woods
    echoes same silence
    Grandfather once here knew

  4. The title was a humourous poem from a light in the attic
    But it gives a nice message that plastic has great to such a large extent that these creatures might not even have trees but plastic

    1. Hi Claire, I am glad that you enjoyed this post. We have several woodpeckers that frequent the woods around our house and it is always a joy to see them work. Thanks for the comment!

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