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I Hear You Knocking


New Hampshire Audubon's annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey is coming up: the second weekend each February.

Three woodpeckers common statewide are among the early birds when it comes to loudly proclaiming territory and courtship. Lend an ear this time of year and you'll hear the rapid-fire drumming of powerful bills on resonant deadwood. Vocally challenged, woodpeckers drum while most other backyard birds sing.

There's no mistaking the drumming of pileated woodpeckers, largest by far, booming through the forest. And there's no mistaking the large oval cavities they excavate on trees in pursuit of insects.

Smallest of the three, downy woodpeckers are delicate in size and drumming. The look-alike hairy woodpecker is twice the size, sturdier in heft and sound.

Woodpeckers have interesting adaptations other than drumming. Most birds have three toes facing front and one back, but woodpeckers have two and two, all the better to get a grip on vertical tree surfaces. Stiff tail feathers act as a brace to further assist the firm grip needed to excavate for insect prey. A very long, barbed tongue darts out to snag that prey.

Downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers are doing well in New Hampshire, bucking a general trend of declining bird populations. Backyard feeders help the smaller two, and the return of the mature forest helps the pileated. Speaking of help, pileated woodpeckers are a keystone species, meaning they impact and benefit many others. Several mammal and bird species move into cavities excavated each year by this largest of the woodpeckers.

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