Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.
Twice on the pipe if the answer is no.
In January 1971, “Knock Three Times,” sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn, hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. With all that knocking, the writers could have titled the song “Woodpecker Love,” but it likely wouldn’t have been as popular.
Before examining the courtship behavior of woodpeckers, let’s be clear about the characteristics and abilities that belong to the Picidae family of birds and that distinguish woodpeckers from other birds.
What Makes a Bird a Woodpecker?
When people think “woodpecker,” two characteristics come to mind:
- Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of woodpeckers is their pecking. Take a walk in a wooded area, and you’re likely to see holes drilled into tree trunks. These holes are woodpecker cavities, chipped out over the course of a few days to several weeks, that will house their families.
- Another characteristic associated with woodpeckers is how they cling to the trunks of trees. Most woodpeckers use their curved, hook-like nails to hop up and down the sides of trees. They also rely on their stiff tail feathers for support. Only a few woodpeckers can perch on a branch.
There are other classic traits that make a bird a woodpecker:
- Woodpeckers in North America have feathers that reflect a theme of black, white, and red. There are a few exceptions—a splash of yellow here, some green there, maybe a spot of brown or pink.
- Apart from the three-toed species, of which there are three, woodpeckers have two toes facing forward and two toes facing backward.
- Woodpeckers have no talent for singing. Instead they squeal, rattle, squawk, and yap… sometimes with explosive enthusiasm.
Woodpeckers also have similarities in their morphology (size, shape, and structure):
- To protect them from harm when pounding on a tree, woodpeckers all have a spongy layer between their inner and outer skulls to absorb shock.
- Woodpeckers’ eyes are fixed within their sockets to prevent them from jiggling when the birds drum a tree.
- All woodpeckers have long tongues that when not extended, wrap around the back of their skulls under the skin, over the top, down between the eye sockets, and anchor in a nostril. Who knew?
There are 22 species of woodpeckers in North America. Among them are the red-naped, red-breasted, and Williamson’s sapsuckers. The northern and gilded flickers are also woodpeckers. The remaining birds have woodpecker in their names; for example, Downy woodpecker.
Although a woodpecker can’t hop headfirst down a tree, it can fall “head over heels” for another of its kind.
How do Woodpeckers Attract a Mate?
Courtship behavior among woodpeckers varies with the species, but there are three common ways in which woodpeckers—males and females—proclaim they are looking for a mate.
Woodpeckers drum by rapidly tapping their bills against objects that will resonant the sound for long distances. Drumming is a courtship behavior meant to signal a potential mate. It’s also how woodpeckers lay claim to and protect their territory. Woodpeckers will also drum locally to communicate with a mate.
If they’re in a forest or wooded area, woodpeckers will drum against hollow logs, dead trees, and tree limbs. In areas where people have homes, woodpeckers will use garbage cans, street signs, utility poles, gutters, chimney caps, and the sides of houses.
There’s nothing like the sound, amplified by your fireplace, of a woodpecker hammering away at your metal capped chimney to get you going in the morning. The only thing that comes close is a jack hammer in your bathtub.
As you might imagine, different woodpeckers have different drumming patterns. Riley Woodford, writing for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, describes the drumming of three species:
- Red-breasted sapsuckers drum with an irregular pattern. It starts and stops, speeds up and slows down. You can listen here for the odd tempo.
- Hairy woodpeckers have a steady and fast drum-roll pattern. Check out how this bird lays down a military-style beat and click here.
- Downy woodpeckers, when compared with the two above, drum more slowly. They drum for a few seconds, pause for a few seconds, and then repeat. This audio is a great example of the downy’s style.
If you’re a die-hard percussion fan, here are a few more birds trying to “drum up” a date to the party:
See also: How Birding Benefits Your Health
Display Flights and Dances
When compared with the dances of some show-offs like the Blue-footed Booby, the western and Clark grebes, and the magnificent riflebird, the dance of the pileated woodpecker is, well… meh.
Regardless, with unmistakable confidence, the male throws his head back to point his bill high in the air. Then he strikes a pose for a moment or two. And that’s it… until he repeats the same two moves.
This video of two males vying for a female’s attention is a great example of the repeated point and pose, point and pose.
The courtship behavior of northern flickers also includes a dance with beaks high in the air. They bob and weave as if each was daring the other to take the first swing. Watch here as two male yellow-shafted northern flickers do their thing; each hoping to win a female’s affection.
As a final example, and according to Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, red-headed woodpeckers:
[P]lay “hide and seek” with each other around dead stumps and telephone poles, and once mated they may stay together for several years. Both males and females perform aggressive bobbing displays by pointing their heads forward, drooping their wings, and holding their tails up at an angle.
Among birds, the use of songs and calls along with dances is common courtship behavior. Woodpeckers are no exception, but they don’t sing as much as they forcefully eject sounds. Their calls may not be as melodious, but with the right amount of gusto they get the job done.
- Click here to listen to an enthusiastic and especially handsome red-headed woodpecker call out to a potential mate. (There’s a slight delay in the audio, but it’s worth it.)
- In this video clip, you can hear the chirp and trill of a red-bellied woodpecker.
- As you listen to this example of a golden-fronted woodpecker, you can hear how woodpecker calls, like the color of their feathers, are variations on a theme.
- And in this video, you can watch a yellow-shafted northern flicker not only inspect a potential home but also call for his other half to look.
Courtship behavior among birds is as varied as birds themselves.
Whatever the song, dance, gesture, or gift, courtship in the animal world isn’t about love. It’s about finding and mating with the best example of the species. It’s all about ensuring the next generation survives and thrives.
And in that, all creatures are the same.