A rare sighting

It’s rare for me to see one Pileated Woodpecker, let alone two Pileateds at once.  But when you do see two woodpeckers together at this time of year, you might be lucky enough to see this!

Mr. Pileated cautiously approaches his lady love.

Mr. Pileated cautiously approaches his lady love.

No foreplay here, just let me jump on your back.

No foreplay here, the male just jumps on her back.  The male sports a red mustache; the female’s facial stripe is black.

The all-iimportant transfer of sperm might have taken as much as 2 seconds.

The all-important transfer of sperm might have taken as much as 2 seconds.

Now this female can go lay her eggs in the nest hole she and her mate excavated in a nearby snag.

Now this female can go lay her eggs in the nest hole she and her mate excavated in a nearby snag.

The Pileated Woodpecker pair stays together all year, defending a territory in a particular area containing suitable dead wood.  They create new nest holes each year, leaving the old ones for other tree-nesting species.  Sometimes their excavations are so large and so vigorous they actually topple the top of the snag right off.

Small, medium, and really big — Woodpeckers

Three species of woodpeckers at the suet feeders in one day!

I managed to trim the photos of the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers to the same relative magnification using the suet feeder as a guide, so you can see the size difference between them. (Click on the image below for max resolution)

Downy Woodpeckers (left) weigh 20-30 grams and are 5-7 inches long, while Hairy Woodpeckers (right) weigh 40-90 grams and are 7-10 inches long.  These particular birds are both females — there might be larger differences between males of the two species.

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are common and inhabit the same range over most of North America, where both species are year-round residents.  They compete for nest sites, as well as food, in mature forest, and can be aggressive toward one another.  Although they seem to have identical plumage as adults, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are actually not very closely related genetically.  It is thought that the two species have converged on a single black and white plumage pattern, maximizing their ability to recognize each other and defend feeding and nesting territories from each other (interspecific territoriality).

And then, there’s this guy, a handsome male Pileated Woodpecker, whose head and neck are about the same length as the little Downy.

This might be one of the pair of Pileateds I keep hearing back in the woods, but have never seen.  Our subfreezing night time temperatures have made the suet feeders quite attractive to all sorts of birds, even these mammoth wood chippers.  He doesn’t have the right body shape to utilize this tiny feeder, though.

Pileated Woodpecker prize

Success!  At last I found a Pileated Woodpecker that sat still long enough for me to photograph.

Tap,thunk, bonk, just like a hammer on a hollow log — that’s what a pileated woodpecker sounds like when it is chipping away dead wood in its search for food.  I heard the bird but couldn’t find it, until I finally caught just a flash of red in the sea of brown bark.

This bird visited every broken branch in a group of large, mature oaks for about 15 minutes, but it was impossible to get a clear shot of it with all the spiny buckthorn undergrowth in the way.  Why are there always branches between me and my subject?

Compared to the rat-a-tat of downy woodpeckers, this bird’s bill operated in slow motion.  But each strike was a measured blow, like a chisel, and when that bill hit the dead wood, the chips did fly — out of the hole, onto the bird, etc.  In several of my photos, I noticed the bird pulled its nictitating membrane (thin skin located between eyelid and cornea/sclera) over the eye, making it look gray.  I assume this is for protection from flying wood particles.

I think this is a female; she has black instead of red feathers above the beak (forehead area), and she has a black chin stripe instead of a red one, as in the male.

Their body size is impressive, as are the large feet with strong toes and long nails.  All woodpeckers have two forward and two backward pointing toes which enable them to perch on vertical surfaces.  Short, stiff tail feathers offer additional support as a prop against the tree.

After the woodpecker finished excavating, chickadees came by to check out the hole and see what the woodpecker might have exposed for them to eat.

Pileated Woodpeckers are year-round residents throughout their range, and seem quite adaptable to a variety of forest types, including suburban trees.  Like northern flickers, they may specialize on ants, excavating their galleries deep in the wood and then lapping them up with their long tongues.  But when insects are in short supply, they eat fruits, nuts, berries (including poison ivy berries), and even seed from bird feeders.  I’ve seen them at my feeders already this winter and will keep looking for the perfect photo op (i.e., bird without branches.