Pileated Woodpecker – Part I

This is the first part in a four-part series.

  This story tracks the life of a young Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus family living in a Beech-Maple forest of Southern Ontario.
  Late May 2016, while taking an early morning walk along my favourite woodsy trail, I caught sight of a Pileated Woodpecker flying towards a hole in the trunk of a dead American Beech tree. Facing south, the hole was about 40 feet up from the ground. Calling, this impressive bird with a black mustache landed on the trunk by the hole. As she did so the head of another popped out! This second woodpecker had a red mustache. After a brief intermingling of calls and wings, the male — who had been inside the hole — flew off, and the female entered. Then, all was still.
  As you can well imagine, following such a sight I took every opportunity to walk the trail and linger at the base of this old tree. Observing, I realized that these two birds were taking turns inside the tree — the male entering at dusk and the female at dawn. They were incubating their eggs!
  Somewhere close to the beginning of June this pattern changed. Tirelessly, both black & red-mustached birds came and went. Each bird arrived with something in its bill, disappeared into the hole, then shortly after poked its head out. And, in the blink of an eye flew off, empty-billed.

  It was June 3, 2016 when I first witnessed their two nestlings, blind & featherless, poking their heads out, begging for food.​ Here, the father feeds them regurgitated insects.

‘father feeding begging nestlings’

Natural science art, "Dryocopus pileatus Father and Nestling", digital painting © 2017, Suzanne M Matheson.
"Dryocopus pileatus Father and Nestling", digital painting © 2017, Suzanne M Matheson

​  With their eyes yet closed, I would put these nestlings at 4-6 days old, based on my dates of observation and the nesting period information given in “Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds”, by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison (2nd edition, 2005).

  This year, Apr 22, 2017, while standing under a living Black Cherry tree just a little further down the path, I was showered with little bits of wood — the cause, a male Dryocopus pileatus Pileated Woodpecker excavating a new nest!

​And here is the up-to-date account:

  May 27, 2017, I sat at the base of a maple tree where I could have a good view of the Black Cherry nest. Our boxer/bulldog, Deli (alias McGuffin), sat with me. She sat so still that a young fox came up within 10 feet of us! When the fox became aware of our presence, s/he stopped and took a good look – then, looped away, stopped to look again, looped further, … Deli kept her eyes on the fox the whole time, with rear legs trembling, but not making any gesture of pursuit. What an awesome dog!
  Meanwhile, I missed what I think may have been an exchange of the two parent woodpeckers at the nest. I only caught sight of a large, dark bird flying away. It could have been a crow, but the departure was followed by muffled mewing/begging sounds in the vicinity of the tree. Are the woodpecker nestlings born?
  Deli and I returned on May 31st. We waited a good 20 minutes, watching squirrels in a frenzy of activity, without any sign of the woodpeckers. Then, just as we were about to leave, one adult flew in from the ENE. Upon arrival, another from the inside peered out and then flew off in the opposite direction. It was after the arriving adult entered the cavity that the begging began, with more gusto than during our previous visit. Yes! The nestlings are alive and well!
June 3rd revealed that the parents are now able to cling to the edge of the entrance and tip down inside in dabbling duck fashion to feed their young. Unlike last year, the nestlings are not yet peering out of the hole.

​I wish to read​ “Pileated Woodpecker – Part II

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If you would like to learn more about
Pileated Woodpecker nesting behaviour
​in Eastern North America,
check out nature photographer,
​Pamela Dimeler’s You Tube channel.

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