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It’s in your nature: Pileated woodpeckers

Boy, how some things change. I remember seeing my first hen turkey with poults nearly 60 years ago. Carbon County only hosted a few wild turkeys then. Today, turkeys are found even in suburban areas in the Lehigh Valley. At the same time I saw that first turkey brood, ruffed grouse could be flushed from almost any forested area in the Times News area. Now I’m lucky if I hear or see one a year. Pileated woodpeckers were extremely rare back in the late ’50s and ’60s, but today, they can be found almost anywhere some forest patches exist with large timber.

I believe (conjecture) that when our forests began maturing again after all the timbering pre- and during World War II, they found more suitable places to feed and nest. Pileated woodpeckers are crow-sized, about 15 to 16 inches in size. Heck, they even have a wingspan of over 2 feet. They couldn’t nest in a dying aspen tree or pine tree that was only 4 or 5 inches in diameter. Our downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers can utilize that size tree to nest. I bet many of you have seen almost as many pileated woodpeckers as the local downy woodpeckers.

About two weeks ago, a reader, Jack Huber from Jim Thorpe, called me and said, “Barry, you have to get up here to see the really neat pileated woodpecker nest that is in my neighbor’s yard.” He thought I would enjoy seeing them and should be able to get some decent pictures as well. He’d like to come along and he talked to Butch Borosh about making a visit.

Well, I couldn’t turn down that opportunity. Two days later I met Jack and we drove to Borosh’s home. When we were getting out of the vehicle we could hear the loud wick-uh, wick-uhs of the nestling woodpeckers. About 50 yards away in a large dead white birch was the nest. Pileated woodpeckers chisel rectangular holes when they look for grubs and ants, however, their nest holes are more oval and could be 2 feet deep. It could take up to 3 weeks to excavate this and they don’t reuse the same cavity the next year.

While discussing the nest and its history, the female began calling from nearby. Within about 10 minutes she flew to the nest tree with the typical woodpecker flight, a few power strokes, a dip in her flight and repeat the power strokes. As she landed near the nesting hole, the young jostled to get into the best position to get fed. I only saw two young, and four is the norm. Looking at my photos later I could then clearly see that she inserted her beak directly in the beak of the youngster. A few minutes later “mom” flew away cackling her wick-uh, wick-uh call.

Pileated woodpeckers prefer eating carpenter ants, beetle larva (grubs), and small fruits. The first week of October last autumn I watched a male pileated fly to a tree near me covered with some fox grape vines. He tried to balance on limbs too small to hold his weight but eventually he found a way to gobble up dozens of grapes. In winter they eat insects but also enjoy poison ivy berries and other small fruits like honeysuckle. Keep your eyes open as well as your ears (since they are rather vocal birds) and I bet a “pileated” will soon cross your path. Enjoy. Get out there. …

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: About ____ species of North American bird species migrate. A. 500, B. 300, C. 150, D. 75.

Last Week’s Trivia: It may surprise you but about 15% of beach sand on Hawaii’s Big Island are actually tiny microplastic bits. The Pacific Gyre keeps circulating all these microplastics and unfortunately Hawaii is found inside this.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

A female pileated woodpecker surveys the nest tree, and assesses the stranger with a camera near her. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A female nestling, top, wants to be the first to get the grub from mom.
Devoted parents. Who knows how many trips this pileated woodpecker pair make bringing food to their hungry brood.
Pileateds only nest in dead trunks but will chisel for food in live or dead trees. Here a pileated woodpecker found a red pine trunk's dead heartwood carved out by carpenter ants.