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 actually 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 site.
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 when it is 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.
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.
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 a humorous look at the woodpecker’s 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”
- US Fish and Wildlife; Woodpeckers
- Vermont Audubon; Wild World of Woodpecker
- Kenneth Slade Alling’s poem “Woodpecker” can be found in the Poetry Magazine archives
- Shel Silverstein’s poem can be found in his book A Light in the Attic.
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