Woodpecker Drumming Style Signals Badass or Bumpkin

Intensity of the pecking determines how the birds perceive interlopers.

When woodpeckers listen to an intruder's drumming, it's the intensity of the drummer that determines what the listening birds do next, in what might be called a fight-or-shrug response.

That's what a research team from Wake Forest University found when it investigated how drumming - the term used for the sound made by pecking woodpeckers - from territorial interlopers impacts woodpecker breeding pairs' behavior.

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"When you walk through the woods and you hear a woodpecker, most people think they are looking for food, but that's actually a social signal they use," explained study lead Matthew Fuxjager in a press release.

The pecking bird might be announcing its availability to mates or it might be staking a claim to the area.

To find out what kind of response the social signal elicited, the researchers recorded the drumming sounds of male woodpeckers and then manipulated them as they were played back in the wild for downy woodpecker breeding pairs that already held a given territory.

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It turned out that when the downy breeding pairs - known for their territoriality - heard longer drumming sounds, they perceived the drummer as a tough customer that would require their coordination in order to attack.

Shorter-lasting drum sounds, meanwhile, made the breeding pairs think, "Eh, pushover," and the duo did not even bother to mount a coordinated response.

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"Partners will actually coordinate or cooperate with how they fight depending on who they are fighting. They size up their opponent and decide whether they need to work together," Fuxjager said.

"In short," he said, "it means an intruder woodpecker with a short drum is perceived as wimpier, while a long drum signifies a tough-guy intruder."

Findings from the study have been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Downy woodpeckers were tested for their response to pecking sounds from intruders on their turf.

Birds in flight often arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, according to a new paper in the

journal Nature

that helps to explain how birds fly in such impressive formations. Lead researcher Steven Portugal and his colleagues focused their study on northern bald ibises, but many bird species also exhibit the amazing flight behavior. Portugal, a University of London Royal Veterinary College researcher, told Discovery News that birds could be using three things to achieve their flying precision: "(1) vision – watching the bird in flight to get all the information they need, (2) feathers – sensing the changes in pressure, wind etc. through their flight feathers, and (3) positive feedback – i.e. they just fly around and when it feels easier/better they stay in that position."

The researchers determined that birds try to find "good air," meaning airflows (not just wind, but even the air created by other flapping wings) that minimize their energy expenditure and help them to get where they plan to go. Conversely, birds avoid regions of "bad air" that could work against them.

Many birds fly in distinctive V-formations. Portugal said, "The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wing path of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes (turbulent air) produced by flapping wings."

Military planes sometimes fly in what is known as an "echelon formation," which mirrors nearly the exact same flight formation of many birds. This particular bird version is a variation of the "V," only with a rounded edge.

The U.S. Navy's famous flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels often flies in a trademark "diamond formation" once popularized by fighter-bomber pilots. In it, the pilots maintain an 18-inch wing tip to canopy separation. Birds can fly even more tightly together.

The term "murmuration" refers to a flock of starlings. These birds can create dramatic patterns in the sky, such as this one over marshlands near Tønder, Denmark. Other small birds, such as sandpipers, may also create what look to be dazzling aerial ballets in the sky as they fly en masse.

Even birds flying very close to land can do so in remarkable unison. Here, a formation was photographed as the birds flew over the beach at Camperduin in the Netherlands.

The classic "V" formation has all sorts of variations. In this case, three separate -- yet united -- groups create an arrow-like effect in the sky.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film "The Birds" included many scenes where numerous birds blanketed the sky. Up close, these starlings look small and harmless but, as a huge murmuration, their power becomes evident.

From the earliest planes to those in design today, aircraft have been modeled after birds. It's no wonder. Every inch of this sleek northern bald ibis, snapped while flying over Tuscany, adds to the bird's flying prowess. Its 53-inch wingspan and powerful, synchronized wing beats must have captivated people in the ancient world too, since ancient Egyptians and other early cultures featured the birds prominently in their artwork and legends.