A Glimpse of Nature -- Pileated Woodpecker Family by Bonnie Tate

Attention readers:  Bonnie Tate created this week’s post.  Our guest author describes herself as a scientist, birder, and nature photographer.  You may recall her amazing image of an Eastern Screech Owl which won the grand prize of our “Picturing Winter” contest.

Massachusetts boasts seven different types of Woodpeckers – the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Pileated Woodpecker.  The Pileated Woodpecker is the largest of the woodpeckers in North America, and I had the pleasure of watching and photographing not one, but two pairs excavating nests in eastern MA.

Pileated Woodpeckers are about the size of a large crow with a strong, heavy bill and a noticeable red crest.  The males also have a red, malar stripe on their cheek which is black on the females.  The malar stripe almost looks like a mustache. 

Male Pileated Woodpecker, Sharon, May 1, 2023

Pileated Woodpeckers use their powerful bills to bore rectangular holes in dead trees in order to find their favorite food, Carpenter Ants.  In late March or early April, the male will also begin to excavate a nesting hole in order to attract a female, and he will continuously drum on the tree as a type of courtship.  I really saw the wood fly during the nest-building process and, eventually, the female joined in making the hole after she decided it was a worthy site. 

Male Pileated Woodpecker excavating, Sharon, May 5, 2023

The entire nest-building process can take up to six weeks and the resulting nest can be up to three feet deep with just some wood chips at the bottom.  Pileated Woodpeckers mate for life, and they stay in the same territory year round, but they go through this tough process of excavating a new nest every year to raise their young. That is dedication although they may use old nest holes to roost in during tough winter months, and other birds and mammals, such as owls and raccoons, rely on these holes for their own nesting and safety.

The female will lay 3-5 white eggs sometime in May which will be incubated by both parents with the male mostly taking his turn on the nest at night. 

Female Pileated Woodpecker on eggs, Sharon, May 10, 2023

Incubation is about 15-18 days after which the Pileated Woodpecker chicks are born with their eyes closed and helpless.  Chicks that are born this way are called altricial as they rely on their parents for all of their needs similar to humans.  Chicks that are born fully independent, such as plovers and ducks, are considered precocial as a fun fact.

The second nest that I was following was in a dead tree out in a marsh, and these parents produced two amazing chicks, a male and a female. 

 Pileated Woodpecker Chicks, Wrentham, June 2, 2023

Pileated Woodpecker Chicks with Dad, Wrentham, June 2, 2023

As the chicks got older, they were quite vocal and endlessly demanding food.  In the photos shown, you can start to see the red coloration of the malar stripe that distinguishes the male from the female.  Even at this age, both chicks will still be fed by regurgitation from the parents, and I found it amazing that no injury occurred!  The chicks will fledge from the nest about 26-28 days after hatching, but they will remain with their parents for another two months into fall. 

Mom feeding Chicks, Wrentham, June 2, 2023

Watching and photographing this Pileated Woodpecker family was an amazing experience, but even more surprising was the amount of other activity that was going on in this one tree.  There was a Common Grackle nest just above, and the Grackle parents continuously harassed the Pileated parents making it difficult for them to feed their young.

Common Grackle with food, Wrentham, May 29, 2023

Harassed by Common Grackles, Wrentham, June 2, 2023

There were also two female Hooded Mergansers that had their eye on the nest, and at least one would enter even when a Pileated parent and the young were occupying the hole. The following picture shows Dad’s opinion when the Merganser left the nest.  He is not happy with the intrusion, and the Merganser has lost some of its feathers!

Hooded Merganser and mad Dad, Wrentham, June 2, 2023

Our two little chicks fledged 4 days after I took these photos, and I wish them the best!  I will be looking in the same general area next year in hopes of seeing the male Pileated Woodpecker courting his mate and starting the process all over again.  As I write this article, the female Hooded Merganser and a female Wood Duck have their eye on the nest hole as prime real estate…

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