Watcher at the Nest

Last April our son Dave, my husband Bruce, and caretakers Troy and Paula spotted a male pileated woodpecker excavating a nest hole in a 60-foot-high, barkless elm snag. At first I wasn’t interested. I had often seen pileateds working on nest holes, and they had never amounted to anything, because pileateds had been making one of several nest starts before settling on a final one.

A male pileated woodpecker feeding on a tree

A male pileated woodpecker feeding on a tree (Photo by Joshlaymon on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

But by April 21 the male pileated was still working on the nest. That’s when I decided to spend some quality time watching the nest builder.

The elm snag was in Margaret’s Woods, several hundred feet away from our caretakers’ home and a few hundred feet from the tree where Dave and Rachel had watched a pileated nest in 2012. The snag was typical of many pileated nest trees but the habitat was unusual. Margaret’s Woods was once an apple orchard and is now a young forest filled with a dense understory of invasive stiltgrass and barberry shrubs. The snag was in an open patch of stiltgrass. Near the edge of the patch, I found a pile of old logs, 30 feet from the nest hole, where I could sit. But since it was a late spring, no vegetation hid me.

A male pileated excavating a hole for a nest

A male pileated excavating a hole for a nest (Photo by Andrea Westmoreland on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The male pileated worked on the nest hole 40 feet high above two other holes, which had been roost holes. While he loosened the wood inside the snag by chipping at it, his long tail outside the snag matched the rhythm of his chipping until not only his head disappeared into the hole, but his upper back too, leaving only his rear end and tail outside the hole.

Then he pulled his head out and tossed several beakfuls of wood chips out of the cavity. He did this twice while I watched through my binoculars and was seemingly undisturbed by my presence.

Another pileated male excavating a nest hole

Another pileated male excavating a nest hole (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

I didn’t always check on the nest during my morning walks. Because it was spring, I had to watch wood frogs on our vernal ponds, search for blooming wildflowers and shrubs, record returning songbirds, and enjoy a host of close encounters with mammals and birds along the nearly ten miles of trails on our square mile of mountain land. But during the last couple days in April and the first of May, whenever one of us walked past the nest tree, the male pileated was sitting in the nest hole peering out.

Throughout the rest of May, none of us saw any action in or near the nest hole. Fooled again, I thought. Maybe the male pileated I saw excavating a hole in a live, leaning chestnut oak tree near our deer exclosure, back on April 24, was the same male and that was an active pileated nest. But it also appeared deserted.

Rachel and Dave saw a young pileated peering out of a hole in Margaret’s Woods, May 2012

Rachel and Dave saw a young pileated peering out of a hole in Margaret’s Woods, May 2012 (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Then, on June 7, Dave saw a young pileated peering out of the elm snag nest hole in Margaret’s Woods. I was astounded and did some quick calculations based on pileated woodpecker research by ornithologists. Pileated nestlings are known to perch at nest holes when they are 20 to 23 days old. If so, they had hatched around May 18.

Incubation by both parents takes between 14 and 18 days. Most likely, the male had begun incubating the eggs when he had been sitting in the nest hole. Ornithologists also estimate that it takes 23 days to excavate the nest, which meant the whole process had begun around April 9.

A female pileated on an ash tree in North Carolina

A female pileated on an ash tree in North Carolina (Photo by DickDaniels on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Lawrence Kilham, who spent many days watching pileateds, wrote that “Each nest watched was different and many nests, located in quiet woodland, were remarkably free from interference.” He also wrote that “Pileateds…prefer to nest in stubs that are free of old holes,” which can shelter black snakes, gray squirrels, or screech owls, known predators on eggs and young.

Margaret’s Woods was a reasonable quiet woodland, but the elm snag did have those two other holes, proving Kilham’s point that each nest is different and that pileateds are opportunists. Unlike their close relatives, ivory-billed woodpeckers, which required southeastern bottomland forests far from humans, the crow-sized pileateds with bright red crests have adjusted to a wide variety of habitats from the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest to the recovering forests of eastern North America, thriving in coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests.

Late in the afternoon of June 7, I slipped over to the pileated tree and saw a head repeatedly poking out of the nest hole. This time it was a female pileated nestling awaiting the return of her parents. Both feed their young by regurgitation, inserting their bills into the throats of their offspring which suck and jerk their heads as many as four times at once. I could also hear the “churring” noise the nestlings make when they are hungry.

Pileated chicks looking out of a nest cavity in Margaret’s Woods

Pileated chicks looking out of a nest cavity in Margaret’s Woods (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Because of stormy weather, it wasn’t until three days later that I was able to return to the nest site. I sat on the old log, now partially screened from the nestlings by striped maple and catalpa leaves. At 9:35 a.m. the heads of two youngsters were out of the cavity and repeatedly making rasping noises. The adults “cuk, cukked” and drummed in the distance.

By 10:00, the nestlings were halfway out of the cavity rasping loudly when they heard a parent close by. Finally, the female pileated landed on the side of the nest tree and poked her long bill down each of their throats three times before flying away.

Still the nestlings kept up their begging calls and I was able to distinguish the female nestling from the male. She had a crest that wasn’t as large as the male’s and she lacked the male’s dark red line on the side of his jaw. Both were a bit fuzzy looking, their crests developed but not as erect as their parents’ crests.

A pileated feeding its chicks

A pileated feeding its chicks (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Nine minutes later an adult called nearby and was answered by another farther away. Then the adult male landed nearby on a dead tree close to the ground already partially stripped of bark and flaked off more in search of carpenter ants and beetle larvae. From there he flew to another leaning dead tree and kept up a chuckling call as he worked around the area. The female was close by, answering the male, while the young never stopped their begging calls, their heads and half their bodies out of the nest hole.

The male flew up and fed only once before flying over to the other side of the snag and then to a nearby tree, chuckling as he worked. I heard a crow and wondered if the male wasn’t staying close to make certain the crows didn’t raid their nest.

At 10:32 the female flew in, landed next to the youngsters and moved her head back and forth as if deciding which of her screaming offspring to feed. Four times she fed the male and never once the female even though she begged as hard as her sibling.

After that, the female nestling disappeared into the cavity, leaving her brother to beg. Once the male parent fed him, he too finally withdrew into the nest cavity, and I continued my walk at 10:52.

A female pileated on a log probing for ants with her long tongue

A female pileated on a log probing for ants with her long tongue (Photo by AndrewBrownsword on Wikipedia, in the public domain)

The following morning I was again watching as both nestlings had their heads out of the nest hole. Then the male withdrew, and the female kept pulling in and out of the cavity, opening and closing her beak and revealing her pointed, barbed tongue which pileateds use to extract ants from wood tunnels.

An adult called nearby, and both youngsters looked around and eventually started their begging calls. He “churred” in one direction and she in another, but no parent appeared.

The next morning both nestlings poked their heads in and out of the nest and “churred.” He also “wuk-wukked” like an adult. His crest was more developed, and he kept pushing down his sibling and dominating the nest hole. It started to rain and I retreated for the day.

A pileated chick ready to fledge

A pileated chick ready to fledge (Photo by Jan Barrett, Seney Natural History Association, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The following morning there was no sign of the female nestling. The male had his head out of the hole and was practicing adult calls. An adult drummed in the distance. Then the male parent flew in fast, fed the youngster twice, flew to a nearby snag, and drummed loudly twice.  The youngster answered with a loud call. They continued the drum and call response between parent and nestling as the parent flew farther away as if trying to lure him from the nest.

Sometimes a parent drummed in response to the nestling; sometimes it “wuk-wukked.” Once I saw the male nestling’s tongue flick in and out fast as if he was eating insects around the nest hole.

That afternoon, Dave saw four pileateds, two parents and two fledglings, in our yard. They had fledged at about 27 days of age and would stay with their parents until September, learning how to obtain their own food. Although the nest cavity was empty, we continued to see them in Margaret’s Woods and in other parts of our forest throughout the summer.

I’ll conclude by embedding a video that Dave took here on June 8, 2010, of a pileated foraging in some trees and a snag not far from his front porch.

The Magnificent Log-Cocks

On bleak winter days, when the forest seems empty of life, I am often cheered by the sight and sound of pileated woodpeckers. Looking like miniature pterodactyls, they flash their black-and- white wings over a black-and-white landscape.

Pileateds are also the big mouths of the woodpecker world, their demonic-sounding laughter echoing from ridgetop to ridgetop as they keep in touch with their lifelong partners. In addition, both male and female pileateds are master drummers, and frequently proclaim their dominion over the territory that they hold until they die. And, when one or the other partner does die, the surviving mate holds on to their territory and waits for another mate to appear.

While the pileated pair often remains close throughout the year, they spend the autumn and winter nights in separate roost holes, which are usually old nests. But the male frequently makes sure his mate is safe in her roost before retiring to his, and in the morning, he is the first one up and out to check on his mate, according to a study in Maine by James S. Kellam.

Some studies show that the male pileated has the best roost hole and that he will displace his mate from desirable food sources. That may be why, one winter when we had a large staghorn sumac shrub in our backyard, a female pileated landed on it, sending it swaying because of her weight. She ignored the distant calls of her mate as she poked her dagger-shaped beak into the red fruit and looked furtively up and around and then ducked her head as if she did not want to reveal her location. His calls eventually stopped, and she continued eating for ten minutes before flying to a black walnut tree, calling loudly several times, and finally flying off.

On the other hand, in the winter I often find them eating wild grapes together or foraging on nearby trees and rotten logs in search of ants and beetle larvae. Ants remain their favorite food, especially carpenter ants. George Miksch Sutton, Pennsylvania’s state ornithologist back in the late 1920s, reported finding 469 carpenter ants in the stomach of a male pileated in Northumberland County.

Pileated WoodpeckerIn those days, pileated woodpeckers were “all too rare in Pennsylvania,” Sutton wrote in his Birds of Pennsylvania. “It is given to searching for food in deep, shadowy woods…They are naturally creatures of the wilderness…In looking for the bird, seek the wild, wooded mountains. Listen for the cackling cry…”

Sutton called the pileated woodpecker “the magnificent Log-cock,” but hunters called it “Woodcock” and regarded it as a gamebird. Hunting and the logging of our old growth forests seemed to have doomed the pileated woodpecker “doubtless nearing extinction” Sutton wrote. But unlike its larger cousin–the ivory-billed woodpecker–the pileated adapted to humanity’s presence and was content to use second-growth forests as long as they contained some older trees and plenty of dead snags, even though its optimal habitat is late successional stages of coniferous or deciduous forests.

State and federal legislation also protected pileated woodpeckers from hunting, and now they are more common in Pennsylvania than at any time in the last 150 years, particularly in the southern ridge-and-valley section of the state, according to the annual Breeding Bird Surveys, and have increased a whopping 3.3% per year on BBS routes statewide. During the first Pennsylvania atlasing of breeding birds in 1984-89, atlas volunteers found pileated woodpeckers in every county and physiographic province.

Despite their commonality, these “crow-sized” woodpeckers, the largest or second largest in the United States, depending on whether or not the ivory-bills have survived in the remote swamps of Arkansas, never fail to thrill onlookers. Their large, red crests, even on juveniles, give them a “Woody, the woodpecker” appearance. Males can be distinguished from females by their red foreheads and mustaches and are 10 to 15% heavier.

“Pileated” means “crested,” which comes from their species’ name–pileatus–first bestowed on them by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish taxonomist, back in the late eighteenth century. But their more popular names, in addition to Sutton’s “log-cock,” included “cock-of-the-woods,” “king-of-the-woods,” “stump-breaker,” “laughing woodpecker,” and, in Juniata County, “cluck-cock.”

Found throughout the forested areas of the United States and Canada, pileateds in the north are larger than those in the south, and some in the west are not as flashy as those in the east, having grayer throats and less barring. Still, they are easy to identify wherever they live.

Although they mate for life, several observers have witnessed elaborate courtship dances. One of the best descriptions was by Edmund W. Arthur on April 14, 1933, who, while driving from Slippery Rock to Grove City, stopped south of Barmore Run when he saw a pileated woodpecker fly across the highway. He watched as a pair “danced” on a knoll “wherein with bowing and scraping one bird, stepping sideways, made a circle about the other, who slowly turned, facing the performer. When the dance ceased there was a sudden jerky movement on the part of each, and thereupon they flew away.”

A more contemporary description, by Maryland birder Lola Oberman, included bark-stripping, hopping, bowing, and head ducking, also while facing each other on the ground. Scientist Lawrence Kilham, who studied both northern and southern pileateds, in New Hampshire and Georgia, observed bill-waving and “woicking” at the same time, which he attributed to courtship.

April seems to be courtship and nest-building time here on our mountain. Often the pair duets, the female higher pitched than the male as they call back and forth. Once, on April 26, as I walked up our driveway, I heard the cackling call of a pileated. A pair was perched on the branch of a fallen oak tree. The male then mounted the female for several seconds. Then he laid his head briefly against hers before flying off. She jumped down to the ground to resume digging in the rotting wood.

Once I thought I had found a nest. As I hiked down Dump Trail on April 14, I spotted a pileated male going into one of three fresh new holes in a large, dead tree. He sat silently looking out of the hole. The following day I heard tapping from inside and again a pileated peered out. After that, I saw no more activity around the tree. Apparently, pileateds excavate several nest starts each spring before the male makes a final selection and does twice as much excavating work as the female.

Bayard Henderson Christy, who observed nesting pileateds in northern Fulton County, noted that the male was more attentive than the female during incubation and that it was he who took over night duty, keeping the usual four white eggs warm. How long they incubate is still disputed. Several observers stated 18 days; Kilham noted 15 to 16 days; and still others hypothesize the black woodpecker’s 12 to 14 days, since it is the pileated’s closest relative.

Pileated Woodpecker sketchOnce the naked and helpless pileateds hatch, both parents feed them by regurgitation. It takes between 24 and 28 days for them to leave the nest, but they remain a family until the fall. During that time, their parents still feed them and show them how to find their own food.

One mid-June evening at 8:25 p.m., as my husband Bruce and I sat in the living room, demonic laughter and screeches came through the walls. We looked out the front porch door and spotted two pileated fledglings struggling up the opposite sides of the black walnut tree trunk beside the front porch. Then they both flopped into the lilac bush, desperately throwing out their wings to balance themselves as they pushed their way through the shrub, and losing their balance several times. Finally, one flew up to forage on a Seckel pear tree beside the driveway while the other flew off in the opposite direction.

This occurred the same year I thought I had found a nest. So too did other observations of juveniles in our yard such as one on the evening of July 31 when three pileated woodpeckers landed in our front yard, screaming like banshees and chasing each other. Even though they had not nested in the tree I had seen them in, they had obviously nested nearby.

Once the family breaks up, sometime in late September or early October, the youngsters are off in search of their own territory and wander widely.

Often our yard observations of pileateds involve predator chasing. Twice we’ve watched a sharp-shinned hawk try to catch a pileated. Once, in late August, as we ate dinner on the front porch, a sharpie dove at a pileated. The pileated dove right back, and the sharpie fled.

The other chase was more protracted but, in the end, when the sharpie finally lunged at the pileated, the pileated retaliated, but neither bird actually made contact.

Cooper’s hawks are more formidable adversaries, and one September morning a pileated chased a Cooper’s hawk out of a black walnut tree near the shed and up into the yard. Eventually, that bird also retreated.

Other known predators on adult pileateds are red-tailed hawks, northern goshawks, great horned owls, barred owls, gray foxes and American martens. Martens, weasels, red and gray squirrels and black rat snakes attack eggs and young in the nest, but since one parent or the other is almost always in the nest or guarding nearby, even those creatures with other intentions, for example, wood ducks interested in taking over the nest for their own use, have a difficult time.

Four researchers in Texas watched wood ducks, both males and females, continually approach and try to enter an active pileated nest containing three fully feathered young. However, the male pileated regularly perched on a nearby snag and chased them off 12 times. But twice a female wood duck slipped in and the male pileated went in after her. The researchers heard sounds of scuffling and pecking before he evicted her.

Although pileateds won’t share their nest hole with other cavity-nesters, they will share their nest tree, which usually has several cavities excavated in it. For instance, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, who lived in the wilds of Ontario, wrote in her book To Whom the Wilderness Speaks about a 70-year-old aspen tree that in the last four years of its life hosted six species of cavity nesters including pileateds, hooded mergansers, red-breasted nuthatches, wood ducks, American kestrels, and northern flickers, all of which made use of pileated-drilled holes. But other observers have seen them chase red-bellied woodpeckers, European starlings, great crested flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds from their nest cavity.

During the three interactions I’ve observed between gray squirrels and pileateds, a gray squirrel chased a pileated once from a branch it had landed on and twice while it was foraging on the ground. In one case, I was sitting in the woods when a female pileated swooped in low like a dive bomber, skillfully zooming around trees, and landed about 30 feet behind me to work on a dead log. Hopping awkwardly on the forest floor, she flipped large pieces of bark several feet in the air with what looked like casual elan as bark flew in all directions.

I watched for half an hour before a gray squirrel scampered up and chased the pileated to a nearby tree about a foot from the ground where she spread her wings in typical pileated protest fashion. Undeterred, the squirrel rushed at her, and she flew low to another nearby tree. This time the squirrel moseyed off as if content to have displayed its dominance.

Kilham, on the other hand, watched a pileated chase a gray squirrel from its nest by spreading its wings and raising its crest. And I’ve watched a robin and a northern flicker chase a pileated for what seemed like no good reason.

But then, how much do we know about even the most common birds and their lives? Even though I watch pileateds whenever I can, I have only brief glimpses of their interactions with their families and other wild creatures. Still, late fall and winter, when the leaves are off the trees, provide excellent viewing of these impressive birds.
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Pileated Woodpecker photo by Bev Wigney of Burning Silo – used by permission. You can see a larger version on the original photo page. Browse all of Bev’s nature photos here.

The second image is by the great American wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes: a preliminary sketch, in charcoal, for Forbush, Edward H., Birds of Massachusetts, Vol. 2, plate 51, courtesy of the Cornell University Library’s Louis Agassiz Fuertes database.

UPDATE: There’s a remarkable series of photos of a female pileated removing bark from a tree at Stokes Birding Blog.