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.
Want to support our work? Visit the Naturalist Weekly bookstore and browse our curated lists of books of poetry and haiku. Or pick up a gift card that can be used throughout the store. Naturalist Weekly accepts donations for coffee and journals.
Our local Great Spotted Woodpeckers have taken to drumming on telegraph poles in early spring …
poles apart woodpecker telegraph each other
Hi Clive, The poles must have perfect pitch! Thanks for sharing the haiku and adding to the conversation!
Quite a range of poems here, from beautiful haiku to the Shel Silverstein that made me smile 🙂
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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,
I loved the Basho and the last one was funny!
Hi Adele, I agree that Silverstein’s poem is great. Glad that you enjoyed it!
Your work your research is sooo thorough I never knew that woodpecker even drum mental structure to learn the difference
Thanks for comment! I am glad that you found this helpful.
I love the poem of Emily dickenson she is my fav in this poem she literally describe the appearance and habit of a woodpecker
Yes! She is a great observer of the natural world.
Thanks. Inspired the following:
in leafless December woods
echoes same silence
Grandfather once here knew
This is wonderful! I appreciate the nod to the timelessness of nature.
I love the Shel Silverstein poem and cartoon! I’m still smiling hours later 😊🤣🙋♂️
Hi Ashley, the Silverstein poem is wonderful! It is always good to add a little humor into the day. Glad you enjoyed it. Talk soon,
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
Yes, there is that underlying environmental message! Thanks for adding to the conversation!
What they do looks like hard work. I think I would have a permanent headache if I were a woodpecker. I love the poems you collected here. Thanks!
Hi Sandra, I agree that digging for insects in trees has got to be difficult! Thanks for adding to the conversation!
A lovely post, thank you. We have only three woodpecker species in the UK. Two I’ve had as visitors to my garden. They are so very clever at seeking out ants.
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!