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Ask Sam: Am I Crazy or Am I Hearing More Woodpeckers?

Flickr Creative Commons | Brian Gratwicke

Every other Friday on Morning Edition, Outside/In host Sam Evans-Brown tackles a question from a listener. 

Susanne from Rumney asks: "I’ve been going for a walk every morning since we’ve been quarantined. So, I’ve noticed lately that I’ve heard a lot of woodpeckers in the morning and I haven’t noticed them before. And I wondered if there are more of them or if this is the time of year that they are seeking wood from the trees?"


There are a lot of reasons that Susanne might be hearing more woodpeckers than ever. And so we’re going to run through all of them in a lightning round. Ready?

  1. Seasonal

It’s spring. “This is when birds start to claim to territories,” says Joan Walsh from Massachusetts Audubon, “and the way that woodpeckers claim territories isby talking a lot!”

  1. Coronavirus induced sampling bias

There’s a chance that because of a change of routine, you’re doing a different kind of walk than you used to, and passing through more woodpeckery places: forests with more dead trees for instance. If you live suburbanly, there is also a bird feeder effect. 
“There have been a few studies that have found that their numbers are greater near feeders, and in suburban areas that have a lot of bird feeders than in other areas,” says Amanda Rodewald from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  1. Mast! (It always comes back to mast)

Last year was a pretty good mast year. For those who are not veterans of Ask Sam, many of our trees have evolved a boom-bust cycle of seed and nut production — perhaps as an adaptation to overwhelm squirrels — which leads to many weird cascading ecosystem effects.

One of which is more woodpeckers! “It might have been this last fall and winter it was a really stellar year for acorns or other nuts the woodpeckers like so they’ve been hanging around after the fact,” says Rodewald.

  1. Reforestation

Our first three explanations all drive the short-term changes: year-to-year ups and downs in woodpecker numbers. The last two reasons might not be the reasons our caller has noticed a change this spring, but they’re the real trend. 
The first is that the whole region has been reforesting for a couple of generations now, and our existing forests have been getting older. Which means “very large woodpeckers like pileated can now find a suitable nest tree in places that forty years ago, the trees just weren’t big enough,” says Walsh.

There are also simply more trees that get old enough to die, meaning more bugs to eat. 

If you look at our big, multi-decade data sets — the USGS breeding bird survey, Audubon’s Christmas bird count — they all show rising populations of all sorts of woodpeckers, because  there’s just more wood to peck!

  1. Forest Pests

This is one that foresters are worried about. We’ve got more forest pests than ever, including invasive ones. For example, the Emerald Ash Borer has been killing huge quantities of ash trees throughout the midwest and northeast.

“There have been a few studies that have found that in locations that have had high mortality of ash trees due to this emerald ash borer, you do in fact see greater numbers of many woodpeckers,” says Rodewald.

So, invasive bugs — which are generally bad in almost every way — but do provide snacks for some.

Sam Evans-Brown, is host ofNHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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