• Donald Attwood

Big Birds


Pileated Woodpeckers are a sign of mature and healthy forests and while these birds have been making a comeback they are threatened with suburban sprawl.

A pair of Pileated woodpeckers, with their scarlet crests, visit our backyard feeder all year round. They’re the largest regular visitors, large enough not to be intimidated by the grackles that hang around in gangs during the summer. In July, these woodpeckers came with new offspring – one male and one female.. The chicks were adult size but, as with many birds, the parents took care of them after they fledged.

The most strenuous demand on the parents’ time and energy was earlier, when the chicks were in the nest. Hatching naked and helpless in late May or early June, each chick weighed about 29 grams, less than a small hen’s egg. In four weeks, it grew nearly 10 times to 226 grams. This prodigious rate of growth was fueled by insects brought hourly by the parents.

In July, the chicks were learning where to find food, so they were brought to the peanut feeder. This is a cylinder of metal mesh hanging from a T-shaped pole. When a bird lands on this feeder, it sways and spins – completely unlike a tree trunk, which is where the young woodpeckers learned to drill for insects. Now they were observing how to fly in, grab the feeder with their feet, and peck peanuts while spinning and swaying.

An adult usually showed up with one chick in tow. Having eaten its fill, the adult would fly to a tree where the youngster was waiting, insert its long bill into the chick’s mouth and regurgitate peanut goop. The chick would jerk its head back and forth while the goop was delivered. Because the adult’s bill was otherwise used to hammer holes in trees, this last manoeuvre looked hazardous, yet no one got hurt.

Sometimes an adult showed up with two youngsters but usually just one. An interesting pattern emerged. The adult male would bring a juvenile female, while his partner would bring a young male: father with daughter, mother with son. There were differences, obvious and subtle, that revealed who was who. The male’s scarlet crest comes down his forehead to the base of his bill, while the female’s crest comes down just halfway. In addition, the male has a dark red stripe on his cheek, while the female’s is black.

Generational differences are shown by behaviour. In July, the adults came directly to the peanut feeder while the kids perched nearby and watched. When the adult stuffed peanut goop down the chick’s throat, this confirmed who was who. Another clue was that the youngsters’ crests looked frizzy, and the colour was less intense (a bit on the pinkish side). They looked sort of like teens with punk hairdos. By mid-August, though, these differences in ornamentation were fading, and the kids were learning how to use the feeder directly.

Having observed this pattern for two years, it seems the parents have enough local habitat to live here year-round and reproduce. (In winter, the youngsters will scout for territories with vacancies.) Pileated woodpeckers require large tracts of mature forest. They especially need a supply of dead and dying trees to furnish them with carpenter ants and nesting sites. When scientists find Pileated woodpeckers living somewhere, they take this as a sign that a woodland is mature and healthy, supporting a great variety of plant and animal life.

Our yard backs onto the Clarke Sydenham Nature Reserve, about 16 hectares of fields and woods. In this climate, a pair of Pileated woodpeckers needs something like 50 to 100 hectares of mature forest to support themselves. The nature reserve is not enough, but it’s close to the wooded ridge running west beyond the golf course.

In the 19th century, the rapid clearing of old-growth forests for towns and farms in the Eastern United States and Canada resulted in a serious decline of Pileated woodpeckers. In the 20th century, many farms were abandoned and forests left to regrow, allowing Pileated woodpeckers to recover. These days, however, suburban sprawl is renewing the threat against this and many other species. I worry about the fate of the woods west of the golf course. I also worry about the wooded areas along Main Road East, where real estate developers are eagerly cutting down forests. When will people learn that the Earth – that we, in fact – cannot afford unlimited destruction?

Near the end of August, two pairs of Pileated woodpeckers visited. The first was an adult male with his daughter who took turns on the peanut feeder. Later that day, the adult female came with her son, and they did likewise. It was a neat demonstration that the kids had learned to use the feeder and that the parents were still watching over them. I thanked them for the information.

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