The Pileated Woodpecker: Observations of a New Family
Birding Tips: Observing Woodpeckers in Nature
In a previous article, I shared my observations of the nesting process of these beautiful birds. During the early part of May, I noticed Mr. and Mrs. P relieved each other of their nesting duties much more frequently than they had before. Something was up. Something had changed.
Then, sometime between May 7th and May 12th, it was obvious to me that the PW eggs had hatched. Ma and Pa P still took turns in the nest, but now they were feeding babies, as evidenced by their movements and new sounds I heard coming from the nest. As Mom or Dad approached, I heard a sound that can only be described as a cross between a cicada and a cricket—an unusual-sounding squawk.
Then Mom (or Dad) would rapidly poke their heads in and out of the opening. This told me they were feeding the hatchlings. You see, Pileated Woodpeckers feed their young by regurgitating into the little ones’ mouths. Gross, I know, but that’s what they do.
You can listen to the sound of a newborn pileated woodpecker; the third selection on AllAboutBirds.org is the sound of the newborns asking to be fed. While you’re there, play the other two “calls” buttons to hear adult calls. Finally, there’s a button to activate their drumming sound.
Another Look at the Nest
Thankfully, my woodpecker family is used to me nosing around with my camera. On one such expedition, I noticed these growths (see photos) on neighboring trees that look (and feel) like clam shells; they’re hard as rocks.
I’ve since discovered the shell-like protuberances are bracket fungus, also known as shelf fungus. The bad news is they form on dead or diseased trees. This scares me somewhat because when the fungus forms on tree trunks, the entire tree is weakened and can fall over. It’s interesting to note that the rings on the fungi indicate the amount of growing seasons they’ve survived. In other words, just as do tree rings, the rings on this type of fungus determines its age.
How Woodpeckers Design Their Nests
As I looked up at the PW nest, I realized Mr. P built the habitat directly underneath a bracket fungus. What an ingenious architect he is! I’m thinking he did so for the following reasons:
- To provide shelter from the elements
- To provide shelter from predators and/or squirrels
- To provide shade (the nest faces south)
- To provide an educational tool for the nestlings
The reason I make the last statement is, although the chicks were still being fed by their parents, I witnessed the young male pecking at the growth. I don’t know if he was strengthening his bill or actually foraging for bugs—possibly both.
The fact of the matter is, Mr. P chose the site he felt was most conducive to giving his new family all the comforts of home, including an on-site classroom. Pretty smart, huh?
How Woodpeckers Tend to Their Young
Over the next few weeks, I noticed changes in the parents’ and babies’ behavior. Oh, by the way—we have two babies: a male and a female. I saw them both peeking out from the nest one day but didn’t have my camera handy. Bummer!
The parents feed the little ones every 30–60 minutes. Whereas they would crawl inside the nest after feeding the hatchlings when they were young, now they simply fly off and do whatever it is they do when they’re not tending to their young. They don’t go far, though. They stay pretty close to home. Sometimes both parents arrive at the same time. One observes and the other feeds.
They remind me of my cats, somewhat. My feline children see me making their meals, but have to keep meowing at me as if to say, “Hurry up, Mom. We’re hungry!” I noticed the woodpecker parents waited a little longer, at this point, when landing on their driveway before feeding the impatient kids. I’m sure there’s a lesson there somewhere.
The male youngster seems to spend more time perched on the lower round of the hole than the female. Perhaps his personality is more dominant than his sister’s. However, I’m thinking he’ll be the one to take the initial flight from the nest, since it’s the male that scouts, selects, and begins construction on the home for his future family.
I’m looking forward to that first flight. I feel as if they’re my kids, too. Watching them grow from Dad’s need to start a family and actually seeing it happen on a day-to-day basis is one of the most exciting things I’ve been privileged to witness, with the exception of the birth and growth of my own child, of course.
At this point, the babies are three or four weeks old. There’s always one who spends all his/her time perched on the lower edge of the nest hole, craning its neck to take in all the sights and sounds. They chatter pretty much all day long. They oscillate from the infantile squawking sound to using their grown-up voice. It’s so cute.
When a parent is spotted or heard calling or drumming, the babies employ their grown-up voice and call to Mom or Dad. They get louder once the parent comes to home base or the surrounding trees.
The Day Came When They Finally Left the Nest
I knew the time was drawing near when the PW family would no longer be my source of entertainment or blog material. The kids will soon learn to fly and fend for themselves. I’m curious to see how Ma and Pa teach or encourage their young to take their first flight. Or is it something instinctual that they’ll just know how to do one day? We shall see.
I feel blessed and honored that this Pileated Woodpecker family trusted me enough to be a part of their journey. I can only hope they continue to allow Auntie Shauna to celebrate life with them. Chances are good that I’ll continue to see all four of them once the kids leave home. Pileated Woodpeckers don’t migrate; they’re homebodies.
Just pray the owner of the wooded lot where they’ve raised their family doesn’t sell out to developers. That would be a crying shame. The observations I’ve made of this most majestic of the woodpecker species has been—and continues to be—an awesome adventure.
I hope you've enjoyed the journey as much as I have.
A Woodpecker Tribute
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Shauna L Bowling