Monday, July 2, 2018

All About Woodpeckers

Here is a recent post from the Union Bay Watch Blog published by Larry Hubbell, long-time local photographer and birder.

Here also is an in-depth article about Larry and his work.

A Father's Pride

Behind this beautiful young pileated woodpecker we see a hint of his hard working father searching for food. For all that separates humans and birds, we still have a surprising number of similarities.
This young bird took his first flight earlier this week. Unlike the owlet which we saw in last week's post, Pileated Woodpeckers take to the air with ease. Although I do suspect their parents sometimes withhold a little food to encourage them to make that initial leap. It would be much easier for the parents to find, feed and protect their young if they simply stayed in the nest, but the critical skills the young birds need can only be learned by observing their parents in the real world.

As they leave the nest, the endurance of the young bird's may be questionable. Also, knowing how to fly does not imply a complete knowledge of landing. They do start out with an innate ability to land vertically. They can latch onto the side of a tree without a hitch. However, a couple of years ago I watched one really struggle with a landing on pavement. It did a belly flop and then struggled to its feet. (This time of year, young innocent birds can be easily damaged by normally harmless pets - especially if Fido is off leash.)

While the young bird incessantly begged for food, Chip worked non-stop, excavating beetles, ants and their larva from decomposing logs. The comparatively pale crest on the young bird is an obvious sign of his youth, not to mention his diminutive size.
Not only is the young bird's crest much lighter than his father's, but his crest feathers are far more fluffy and downy. On adults these feathers hook together like velcro and usually look as sleek as the hair of a 1950's rock star. Also, the young bird's bill is not nearly as stained or worn as his father's. The same is true for all his feathers and virtually every other body part. From this little bird's conception until a week ago, he was inside his mother, in an egg or inside the protection of the hollowed out nest, curtesy of his father.
A young woodpecker fresh out of the nest is as close to pristine as a creature can get. No wear, no tear, no fuss or muss, perfectly equipped but mentally missing the wisdom and knowledge to survive.
For example, earlier in the week I watched him (or possibly his brother) calling loudly from this decomposing snag. By the way, I have seen both parents feeding here multiple times. With just the tiniest of effort this young bird might have found some of his own food, but apparently he still lacked the know-how.
He called so long and loud that he finally attracted a couple of American Crows. They were apparently irritable, probably from providing constant care for their own young. One of the crows dived at the youngster and even gave chase. The aggression sent the young woodpecker flying and squawking through the forest. Subsequently, his calls became a bit softer. 
This seemed like a dangerous situation or at best a harsh lesson, but compared to what a Barred Owl or a Cooper's Hawk might have done, the Crow was like a thoughtful adult chastising his neighbor's noisy offspring.
Off and on for most of March, I hunted for Chip. His absence made it obvious that he was not nest building in the same area where he and Goldie nested last year. On April second I finally found him. He was hard at work building a new nest. It was not an accidental sighting, that day I spent over four hours looking at every potential tree in the west half of their territory. I was quite relieved when I finally found him hanging from the entry way to this partially-finished nest.
Two months later, I once again found Chip at the same location, feeding his young. In this photo we can see one of the young is a male and one is not. Looking closely, you will notice that females have black foreheads. With males, the red of the crest comes continuously forward all the way down to the bill.
Chip's investment in the young is substantial. Starting sometime in March he began excavating the nest in this dead Red Alder snag. He probably spent close to a month working on the nest. After Goldie laid the eggs, Chip took turns sitting on the eggs. Plus, the males typically spend their nights incubating the eggs. Once the eggs hatched, both parents worked virtually non-stop to find food to feed the young. In addition, there was the ongoing responsibility to keep an eye on the nest to protect their progeny from predators.
A couple of week's ago when a second year Cooper's Hawk swooped in to investigate the noise of the nestlings clamoring for food, Chip immediately began calling stridently. The young knew enough to pull their heads back inside and after a few tense moments the Cooper's Hawk decided the potential reward wasn't worth the risk.
After the hawk left, Chip stationed himself on this Big Leaf Maple, and kept a close watch for quite some time. Even at this distance you can see he was agitated by the visit. He is holding his crest abnormally erect.
Here is a closer example of Chip with his crest partially erect. This was taken last week while he was securing food for the fledglings. He was rather close to a pathway with pedestrians, bikers and dogs passing by. Not doubt this explains his heightened awareness. 
At a similar distance from the path, the young bird appeared to be showing a little apprehension as well. Although I do suspect it may be harder for the young birds to get their fluffy little crests to lie down. 
This February photo, before any nesting began, shows Chip looking a bit more relaxed. His crest is laying down, giving him a more normal, slick-backed look. As the young birds grow so does their demand for food. Now, about three months after Chip started building the nest, he and his mate, Goldie, are both still feeding their young.
This is Goldie earlier this week, preparing to feed their daughter. The parents will feed any of the young, but after they leave the nest it does seem like the young of the same gender get fed a little more often. Originally I wondered if this might be a bit of bias on the part of the parents. However, it now seems to me that often the parents simply tend to feed which ever fledgling happens to be nearby. This makes me wonder if it is the young who create the perception of bias. Could it be that the young have an instinct to follow the parent of their own gender?
This little male certainly followed Chip around while Chip was finding food. Occasionally, the young bird would pick about among the leaves, but the learning process appeared fairly slow.
By the end of summer, all three young will be finding their own food. Soon after that they will stop following their parents and strike out on their own.
I am always impressed by the focus and precision of a pileated woodpecker's head and beak. The width of the beak, where it attaches to the head, must help transmit the full force of the strike. At the same time, the rapid tapering to the pointed tip must multiply the force of the impact. I may not be positive about the physics involved but the lifelong results are certainly impressive.
While Chip's hard work continued, the young bird watched, stretched and observed the non-stop foraging. After a few moments, he flew down closer to Chip, begged for food and was properly rewarded. 
I am certainly unable to read Chip's mind, but I would hope he is feeling a little pride in his offspring. This week the young have progressed from being confined inside the only home they have ever known, to following their parents and initiating their journey to independence. 
Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives n the city!

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