Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two Male Pileated Woodpeckers – An Interesting Encounter

Today began very dark, gray and cold, but by nine o’clock, the sun was almost breaking through a pale sky covered with high, thin, rumpled clouds. I had planned to spend a full morning working inside, but on my way up the driveway to the mailbox with some bills, heard a loud wik-wik-wik-wik and when I looked toward the edge of the woods saw two Pileated Woodpeckers that had just arrived on the lowest part of the trunk of a large living pine.

They were both males, with full, bright red crests and thin red moustache stripes. They clung to opposite sides of the trunk – which was big enough around so that one could be out of sight behind it at times – and both hitched up a short way, then hitched back down, making their way around the trunk in a circular fashion, with one seeming to follow the other, sometimes getting pretty close, but usually keeping a fair distance between them.

Now and then they both stopped to peck at the bark in a desultory way, but they didn’t seem to be foraging seriously. They never went further up the tree than about six or seven feet from the ground. A couple of times, one hopped off the lowest part of the tree onto the ground and pecked at a branch for a moment, then it hopped back onto the trunk. A few minutes later, the other worked its way down and around, and did the same thing in the same area of the ground.

They continued this behavior for at least half an hour, and after watching for a while, it seemed to me that one looked slightly sturdier or heavier, and also a little less bright in coloring, and this one seemed to be the more aggressive of the two. For most of the time after the calls when they first arrived, they were silent – except for the scratching sounds of their claws on the bark and the occasional knocking of bill against bark – but now and then, one stretched out its neck and bill toward the other in an aggressive way, and called a loud wik-wik-wik. This usually was not answered by the second male.

Several times one spread its wings, exposing the big white patches, and sometimes the other one would respond to this by spreading its own wings and they both flapped a few times in a flurry of flashing white and black – then they settled back onto the trunk of the pine and continued hitching up, down and around. It seemed clear that they were having a territorial confrontation – but if so, it was conducted in an almost formalized way, almost a kind of dance, with aggressive moves and a lot of posturing, but no seriously threatening action of one toward the other.*

About 10 minutes after I started watching them, a third Pileated Woodpecker flew in, calling the same sort of wik-wik call. This one was a female. At first she flew directly toward the two males, and there was a brief flurry of wing flapping from all three, then the female settled low on the trunk of another tree a few feet away from the one the two males were in, and she began to knock at the bark and flick off large slabs. I’m not sure how long she stayed – maybe five or ten minutes. She disappeared quietly at some point, flying without giving a call, while I was watching the males.

Finally, when it seemed as if the encounter could go on like this indefinitely, all of a sudden one of the two males gave a sharp wik-wik-wik call that might have been an alarm – or not – and flew swiftly toward the woods that lead down to the creek. The second one stayed on the trunk for maybe 15 seconds, then flew off in the same direction, and I could hear their calls continuing. As the second one flew, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk glide low across the street, just over the treetops in a different part of the woods. It did not seem to be heading in this direction at all, and I’m not sure it was the reason for their abrupt departure, but it may have been.

*The species account of Pileated Woodpeckers in The Birds of North America Online notes that a territory is defended by a Pileated Woodpecker pair all year. “Both members of a pair may chase off an intruder; more commonly, intruder and pair member of same sex as intruder will interact while the other member watches.”

The acccount also says that “Wing Spreading display is frequent in conflict between birds of same sex or members of pair; wings are raised and spread showing white patch . . . Birds may interact by posturing at one another on trunk; this typically involves posturing while circling trunk and periodically alternating direction.”

Bull, Evelyn L. and Jerome A. Jackson. 1995. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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