Originally printed in the Feb. 12, 2003 edition of the Illinois Valley News
Animals have some unique methods of communicating with other animals, particularly within their own species. It may not be as precise or complex as human speech, but animals can share large amounts of information. Most people know about tail movements of a dog, the rattling and hissing of snakes and especially the various calls of birds.
Scientists have learned a lot about birds and can identify many methods as well as reasons for bird communication. Bird calls are thought to announce territory boundaries and breeding availability and so bird singing is more noticeable in spring and summer. Also bird calls in social birds, such as crows and ravens, can communicate food sources and also danger to other members of their colony.
Woodpeckers are not noted for their singing ability but they can also communicate with sounds. Last summer an acorn woodpecker trained me to move away from the bird bath area when it was time for his afternoon drink. I can’t describe the sounds that he made but I learned that he was there and I should move out of his territory as least temporarily.
Acorn woodpeckers have another method using sound to communicate, probably for other members of their social group. It’s called drumming and it can be very annoying to someone trying to sleep, when they began drumming on the side of the house. These woodpeckers will drill large numbers of holes in poles, barns, houses, dead trees and other structures in order to store acorns. However, scientists have observed them drumming on hollow, resonant structures, and even sheet metal roofs and never attempting to store acorns, Other woodpeckers will also drum on trees to communicate, but nobody has learned to decipher their secret codes yet.
Acorn woodpeckers also use color to send messages. The red spot on top of their head, the flashy black and white pattern to their feathers, and particularly the large white rump which is exposed when they fly suddenly away, are all used as signals to other members of their colony.
Oak trees are a basic requirement of acorn woodpeckers and they are never found in areas which are lacking oak trees. They range from the coastal areas of southern Washington, south through western Oregon and California into Mexico wherever oak trees are abundant. Their scientific name is Melanerpes formicivorus and relates to their feeding habits and coloring. “Melanos” is Greek for black and “erpes” from “herpes” which is Greek for creeper. “Formica” is Latin for ant and “vorus” is Latin for eat or devour. Therefore they are the black creepers that eat ants. Actually they also eat acorns, nectar, fruit, flowers, as well as many different insects. They have also been seen eating grass seed and other birds eggs.
Acorn woodpeckers look like the clown of the forest but they have a very complex social life. This involves sharing mates and raising their young in a communal pattern. This relationship involves much communication and acorn woodpeckers have many methods to make sure it occurs.