The avian slice of ‘A Bestiary’ continues with the Picidae family of woodpeckers . . . and where else to begin but with the most striking and strident of these birds . . . North America’s own . . . Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus.
Walking about in the gardens and fields one early spring morning, I was very fortunate to witness a unique ritual happening along the edge of the north forest not far from a beloved serpentine native Black Cherry.
I was grateful for the warm and bright rays of sunlight that lit up the fiery red tuffs atop two male Pileated Woodpeckers who seem to be strolling along the ground together. The flashes of red captured my attention and I stood transfixed, in awe of these beautiful forest birds as they matched each other in varying gestures reminding me of thoughtful choreography.
The sequences continue for over ten minutes, and at that time, as well as, when I first wrote about this amazing event, I believed the pair to be a male and female and the dance to be a kind of courtship ritual. Thanks to a fellow blogger I did look more carefully to see the red lines drawn out from the bill and the red crested helmet that falls down to the top of the bill. Seeing it now so clearly it astounds me I failed to see these telltale male markings right away.
If this is a territorial contest between two Pileated Woodpeckers, I must say that these large crow-sized woodpeckers are very mild mannered, for there is nothing threatening in their act of mirroring one another’s movements.
After about ten minutes and over a hundred photos, the Pileated Woodpeckers flew off in the same direction. Perhaps they came to territorial terms through these fluid gesticulations or just were flying off to seek a more private clearing for their dance. If you would like to see more of their remarkable animated choreography click here.
In the spring of 2011 I chanced to capture another pair of Pileated Woodpeckers and this time it is indeed a male and female . . . most likely a monogamous couple . . . where the male is trying to woo the female, who seems to be more interested in the bark of our stately Rock Maple than her mate. The couple will stay together within their territory throughout the year and their lives but if one should die the other will find another partner. If these birds were into sweet sap these old trees would be in trouble. The pine grove, however, is where I do see many large rectangular holes and these, along with other excavations of the Pileated Woodpeckers, are often visited by other birds as well.
Two easy ways to determine the sex of these birds is clear in the photo above. Note the black forehead of the female (the red crest does not run down to the top of the bill) and that there is no red streak along the zebra-like lines continuing from the bill.
This past spring I was truly amazed to see another unusual encounter involving a Pileated Woodpecker, only this happening was between a female Pileated Woodpecker and a male Bluebird. The bluebirds were nesting quite a good distance from the crippled Black Cherry that was the venue for this strange duet . . . so I was quite uncertain as to just what the bluebird was so upset about.
Both the Bluebird and the Pileated Woodpecker do seem to come to an understanding and things settle down to the normal comings and goings of avian beasts within this wildlife habitat. In fairness to the male Bluebird . . . he had been challenged quite a bit by another male Bluebird and Tree Swallows, which may have left him a bit unnerved. Though he surely did show a bit of pluck in going after such an over sized bird.
I once had a ritual of walking down into the forest each morning . . . completing a loop to visit some of my favorite trees . . . then climbing back up the east facing hill to my house. One morning many years ago I chanced upon a female Pileated Woodpecker feeding a couple of nestlings. I never witnessed the male carving out the nest hole nor the female adding the final touches on their oblong opening and nest but was happy for this once chance encounter of seeing a mother and her nestlings at such close proximity.
It was a bit surprising to see one of these large birds perching in a viburnum bush this summer, but since they include berries in their omnivorous diet I should not have been surprised. The Pileated Woodpecker diet is largely made up of carpenter ants and they supplement those tasty morsels with flies, termites, woodboring beetle larvae and other insects.
When ambling through the woods I often discover piles of wood chips and look up to find the uniquely chiseled rectangular hole or holes hammered out by the Pileated Woodpeckers. Often I hear their calls . . . especially in the early morning just before sunrise. Their territorial and expressive drumming carries up from the forest throughout the spring and summer. I am forever peering out when hearing their calls and drumming to see if by luck I might capture their flight across the sky or perchance get a closer glance when one or two might alight nearby.
It is very important to allow a forest to fall as it will and leave those essential fallen and standing dead trees to decompose back into the earth in their own time, for there is vital life within for many birds and even mammals to partake of.
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