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.






5 responses to “Watcher at the Nest”

  1. Merrilee Anderson Avatar
    Merrilee Anderson

    What a treat! I love the pileateds.

  2. Carolyn Hatley Avatar
    Carolyn Hatley

    This is wonderful! What a pleasure to follow this from the excavation of the nest to the fledging and then to see them again. Thank you so much for your observational skills and documenting for us to enjoy. I felt like I was seeing it alongside. Carolyn Hatley

  3. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks to both of you. I’m glad you enjoyed the column and pictures. Pileateds are amazing birds.

  4. Wendy Plowman Avatar

    Again, you bring us a piece of your special mountain in central Pa. Awesome story, pictures and video. Thank you. Wendy Plowman

  5. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you, Wendy. It’s always great to hear from you. And I imagine you and John still enjoying your place in Sullivan County as a second home.

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