A place to call home

Pileated Woodpecker

Raven was full of energy today. If she’d been cooped up all yesterday I might blame it on not having gotten out, but I took her for her regular walk yesterday and the day before… I think it’s been a while since I’ve missed a day. So I don’t know where it all came from. But in an effort to burn some of it off, I thought I’d take her the “long way around”, into the forest across the road and north to the abandoned property we usually head to, so she could run around rather than walking down the road where she’d have to stay on a leash and travel at my pace.

We never made it as far as the property. We meandered through the forest across from our house, me wandering slowly and keeping an eye out for the Red-shouldered Hawk nest that we know is in there somewhere, and Raven running around like a maniac, her tongue lolling out to the side, the whites of her eyes catching the sun. Normally she rarely goes far, and usually remains in sight, but today she was all over the place, disappearing behind ridges for long enough that I had to whistle for her to return several times . I strongly considered calling her back and putting her on the leash, and turning around for home, although I wasn’t sure what I would do to burn her energy once we were home. I also don’t know what we’re going to do once the forest birds return, because I won’t want Raven running about off-leash and disturbing the wildlife. The upside to there being nothing in the forest in the winter is there’s nothing for her to disturb.

Before I could decide one way or the other whether to take her home, I heard the methodical tapping of a woodpecker working on a tree. It was a strong, loud tapping, suggesting a strong, big bird. I followed the sound, peering through the trees to try to locate its source. Finally, I spotted it, high up on a thick dead trunk. Can you see it?

Pileated Woodpecker

It was, as I’m sure you guessed, a Pileated Woodpecker. High up in the tree, probably at least 10m (30ft), it was working away at a hole on the south side of the dead trunk. The trunk itself was massive, a good two feet in diameter, at least. I ran off some photos from a distance, then decided to try sneaking up a little closer. I wasn’t sure how close I could get given Manic Dog was running around in wide, wild circles through the forest, and I didn’t want to risk disturbing it, so I went slowly. Move a few meters, pause, take some photos, move another few meters, pause, take some more photos. I took over 150 photos of that woodpecker this afternoon.

Pileated Woodpecker

Eventually I got close enough that I could see the bird was a female. Unlike in some of the smaller woodpeckers, where just the male is adorned with red, both male and female Pileateds share the red crest (although the female’s forehead is brown-black while the male’s red extends the full length). You can tell the sexes apart by the moustachial stripe – this is where the sex-specific red occurs, with the male’s moustache being red. Since this bird’s is black, that makes it a she.

Pileated Woodpecker

She seemed reasonably unconcerned by our presence. Although she tipped her head from time to time to glance down at Manic Dog tearing circles through the forest, at times distant, at times directly under the tree (as I got closer and Manic Dog’s manic circles brought her closer to the trunk), it was never more than a quick glance before she returned to her work. If she’d appeared the least bit flighty I wouldn’t have got nearly as close as I did, instead opting not to press her comfort zone. Since she seemed totally unperturbed, I snuck up for a better look.

Pileated Woodpecker

A closer look indeed. Looking closely at her wings reveals her age. There are two things to note. The first is the primary coverts, those little short feathers midway up the length of the wing, along the outside edge, which cover the sheathes of the primaries where they attach to the wing. You can easily see that the outer ones are dark and fresh, and the inner ones are brown and faded. Likewise, when you look at the folded flight feathers, you see a bunch of them in the centre are also brown, compared to the black ones on either side. Both of these are characteristics of a bird in its third calendar year – that is, a bird that was hatched not last year, but the year before (2007).

Pileated Woodpecker

In a bird hatched last year the primary coverts would be all brown and the central flight feathers would be the same as the others. In an older bird, the primary coverts are either completely uniform blackish, or randomly mixed, and the flight feathers might be either uniform or with a slightly faded brownish-black group in the middle. These feather patterns are true for all of the woodpecker species I’ve banded, although it’s really the primary coverts that are key; the central flight feather pattern may or may not occur in any given individual.

It also looks like she might be regrowing an outer tail feather, although it’s hard to say for certain if that’s what that feather is. Although I didn’t actually pay attention to these details in the forest, instead cropping in on the photos and examining them when I got home, age is something you could ostensibly determine with binoculars.

Pileated Woodpecker

In this photo I caught her just as she tensed up for another blow at the wood. Look at the bulge in those neck muscles. Woodpeckers have powerful necks, the muscles well-developed for the strong, repetitive hammering motion they use for excavating both food and nesting cavities. For more on the adaptations of woodpeckers to hammering, check out this post on the Hairy Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

The chips go flying as she works. The cavity appears deep, and broad, and the opening is very rounded. All three characteristics suggest that this is a nesting cavity, not a foraging cavity. The foraging cavities I typically see from Pileateds have rectangular openings, and the excavation is wedge-shaped, tapering in toward the centre of the trunk. The other characteristics of the site – a broad, dead trunk, about 10m up, on the south side of the tree – are also in keeping with typical nest cavity locations. I was a little surprised that it was the female excavating the nest, as I typically think of male birds doing most of the work, but in Pileateds apparently the job is shared equally. In fact, there are a lot of species where both sexes build the nest, and many where it’s just the female (these latter tend to be mostly passerines, waterfowl, hummingbirds and gallinaceous birds).

Pileated Woodpecker

She grabs a chunk of wood with her beak and pulls at it to remove it from the cavity’s side. She and her mate will probably continue slowly working on the excavation for another month and a half. In Ontario, Pileateds generally begin chiseling out a nest hole sometime around mid-March, but don’t lay eggs till early May. The final touches may continue to be made on the nest even while the birds are incubating (I guess with nothing else to do while you’re sitting in there, staring at the walls…).

Pileated Woodpecker

Both sexes incubate, for 2 to 2.5 weeks before the blind, naked young hatch. The young will be in the nest about 4 weeks, and will start poking their heads out probably during the last week of that period. Assuming eggs are laid early May, that would suggest the young will hatch around the last week of May, and will fledge the last week of June. I’ll have to write in on my calendar to go back to check on the status of the nest at the end of May, see if the adults are bringing food to it. If they are, it would be neat to come back before they fledge to see the young sticking their heads out of the nest. I’ve never seen an active Pileated nest before.

Pileated Woodpecker

Ever wondered what a Pileated looks like from underneath? I got to the point where I was standing directly below her, looking up at her bum while she worked. She barely even looked down at me. She continued tossing out woodchips, which landed on the leaf litter around me with soft thunks. Manic Dog tore by, she glanced down briefly, kept on going, focused on her work.

Pileated Woodpecker

When I left, she was still tapping, digging, hard at work building her home of the next two months. I guess, 10 meters up a tree, things like two-legged apes and crazy non-wolves really don’t pose much threat. Two previous homes below – was one of them hers, I wonder?


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

15 thoughts on “A place to call home”

  1. Wow. Marvelous indeed. Like kaholly I appreciate your attention to detail. You have an amazing eye and I appreciate the thorough and methodical way in which you give us the nature all around you. I feel enriched by this post. This is what you do so well here. Thank you, and

  2. Thanks everyone! I really appreciate your comments.

    You know, Jo, that just because the bird’s building a nest doesn’t mean they don’t divide like amoebas – perhaps they just prefer to do it in private…

  3. What a great experience! I would love to take a walk in your woods, but your posts are the next best thing. I volunteered with the bird banders in my area for several months, and recognized banding lingo! Fantastic detail – thanks for taking the time. I’m going to visit your blog regularly!

  4. wow! that’s so cool…
    and we get excited when a downy comes by the suet:)
    Steve and I are hoping to come up to visit in May sometime…I would LOVE to see your little piece of paradise…

  5. I loved this post, Seabrook. I stumbled across a female pileated woodpecker yesterday. And also a freshly excavated cavity much like the one you are discribing. I enjoyed all the information you presented here.

  6. These are gorgeous captures of the Pileated Woodpecker Seabrooke! And I love your information on gaging the bird’s age from the feathers.

    I discovered a Pileated nest site last summer and I’m waiting to check it out again this year as I believe they pretty much stay in the same territory. Do you know if they always build a new nest each season or occasionally use the previous years nest cavity? I am looking forward to your updates and hope to have my own Pileated chicks to post this year!

  7. Fantastic post! I expect that the other holes are indeed previous nest cavities. I recall reading that Pileated excavate new holes each year, and older ones are used for roosting (as both members of the pair won’t be able to share the cavity) And usually if they are in the same tree/snag, it is a good indication of previous nesting success.

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