During nesting season, we have a good chance of seeing many birds whom we might not notice otherwise because they’re out in the open, collecting nesting material and scrounging for as much food as possible because they have hungry mouths to feed. I was very grateful to my friend Carol when she told me about a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) nest where the babies might be fledging soon. Pileated woodpeckers are also nesting somewhere near my home, but I rarely see them.
When we arrived at the nesting site, one baby was poking its head out of the oblong nest hole about two-thirds the way up a very tall snag.
Above it, a red-headed woodpecker (see right) was maintaining a nest. A red-bellied woodpecker was also visiting higher up.
While we watched, the young one continued scanning the skies while calling out to its parents. The baby persisted in watching from the nest, which was only lined with wood chips. Unlike other birds, pileated parents do not line their nests with nesting material such as soft grasses.
Occasionally, the parents answered and, after about 15-20 minutes, one flew over to check us out. It was the father, who could be identified by his red crest that extended down to his bill and the red cheek or moustache stripe (right photo). The left photo shows a female who was foraging in a tree on another occasion. Her red crest is only on top of her head and her cheek stripe is black.
The young one looked back into the nest; I wondered whether another nestling might be there. No one else peered out at that moment and we speculated as to whether one might already have fledged as two had been seen the previous day. When the father visited the nest, still only one baby showed itself, so we didn’t know whether there might be another one around (nests usually have 1-3 babies).
The father fed his offspring by regurgitating whatever he had been eating. The pileated woodpeckers’ diet comprises mostly carpenter ants (40-97% of their diet in various studies), supplemented by other insects including worms, caterpillars, roaches, flies, and grasshoppers.
They also eat nuts and wild fruit. If you have a garden and want to attract them, they like persimmons and many berries, including those of poison ivy, sumacs, dogwoods, elderberries, greenbriers and sassafrass.
Many landowners tend to clear their yards and gardens of fallen logs and dead standing trees. I keep several woodpiles in various spots as the decomposing wood is home to many of the insects that the pileated woodpeckers and other birds need for their diet.
Papa took off again, leaving a satisfied young one behind (at least for the time being).
These woodpeckers are the largest in North America (15.8-19.3 in/40-49 cm), since the ivory-billed woodpeckers have been declared extinct. They are monogamous and luckily have plenty of opportunities to find mates. Pileated woodpeckers had been in serious decline in the 18th-19th centuries as forests were logged for the timber industry and to clear land for ranches and farms. Since then, they have rebounded to just over 2.5 million individuals.
I realized when I looked at my photos later that I had not been paying enough attention to the coloring of the parents and offspring. When I went away for a short time and then returned, mama pileated was visiting the nest. In addition, whereas I had been watching a female nestling first, now a male baby was calling out for food. A view of the two looking up, shows the male’s red cheek stripes were obvious, but I had been oblivious at the time. The female is on the left and the male is on the right.
The next time that papa returned, the male offspring stuck his head out for a feeding.
Papa didn’t want to play favorites, so he stuck his head in the nest to apparently call them both to come out.
They opened their beaks wide, begging for food.
Papa let them ask for a while, sticking his tongue out at them as they begged.
He also decided to take out some fecal matter. I don’t know how long the nestlings had been in there (they usually grow in the nest for a month), but a clean nest is desirable.
After the babies fledge, they may stay with their parents for up to three months.
I’m so glad that Carol and her sister Donna, near whose home the nest is located, invited me to come see the family. It was time well spent as it got my mind completely off an ongoing series of problems complicating my life lately. Hope seeing these photos was also a bright moment for you!