Pileated Woodpecker behaviour

This photo was taken on August 21, 2005, while we were hiking at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park. I thought of it after watching a Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) working on a Poplar tree outside the bedroom window just after dawn this morning. The following relates to the interesting behaviour of the woodpeckers in the above photo:

The photo was taken a few minutes after we sighted the two Pileateds. Some hikers had come up to me while I was shooting photos of a Four-horned Sphinx (Ceratomia amyntor) caterpillar on a cedar rail fence. They said that if we wanted to see some woodpeckers up close, we should go a bit up the trail and they would be there — we wouldn’t miss them. Don and I headed off in the direction indicated, and within a minute or two we could hear a terrific amount of hammering coming from the nearby woods. We soon located the woodpeckers which were both standing on the arching trunk of a fallen tree. They were facing toward each other and were taking turns loudly smashing at the tree while slowly advancing. One would watch while the other smashed, and then the action would be reversed. They looked decidedly defiant — as though each was out to intimidate the other. When they were no more than a meter apart, they both lept up and clashed, their feet kicking out almost like game cocks. Then each flapped back a couple of meters to begin another bout of hammering and advancing. Once more, they ended their duel like a couple of kick boxers. After another one or two further engagements, they flew a short distance through the forest, then dropped to the earth beside a large tree trunk.

Quietly, I moved closer, keeping enough distance so as not to disturb them. I knelt down beside a fallen branch at some distance from the woodpeckers in the hope of shooting a few photos. The birds gazed in my direction a couple of times, but appeared to ignore my presence. Instead, they hopped around on the earth, sometimes leaping to the tree trunk to cling for a few seconds before hopping back to the ground. They scraped and gouged at the ground with their beaks and seemed to be digging up some kind of insect. A couple of times, one would approach the other as if trying to feed it something found in the earth (courtship-type behaviour), but this attempt would generally end in what, to me, appeared to be angry screams. After a couple of minutes of this behaviour, one of the birds flew off to peck at a standing snag about 30 meters away, leaving the other bird clinging to the bark of the trunk. Now the remaining bird fixed its gaze upon me. A moment later, it flapped down to land on the branch that lay between us. It twisted its head to one side, looking a bit like the crazed “Beetlejuice” character, then began smashing at the branch while advancing closer. After a few slams of its beak, it would stop and stare at me intently, head twisted to eyeball me, and then hop forward and smash the stick a few more times. I tried to shoot a few photos, but each time, I caught it in the act of smashing at the stick, so ended up with several badly blurred photos such as the one below. Much as this is such a poor photo, I would call attention to the woodpecker’s foot in the right lower corner of the photo. As the woodpecker hopped towards me, it was almost impossible to take my eyes from its talons. They were incredible. Absolutely huge and wickedly sharp and curving. Dragon claws. Really quite spectacular when seen from less than a couple of meters away.

With one last glare in my direction, the woodpecker launched itself off of the branch and flew off to join the other. I was left with a few rather blurred photos, but also some very memorable moments of an unusual encounter with a Pileated woodpecker.


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6 Responses to “Pileated Woodpecker behaviour”

  1. Trix Says:

    Fabulous pics of a fabulous bird! I have to say that for some reason Pileateds seem more accustomed to humans in the late summer, early fall. We had several last fall who didn’t seem to mind our presence or nearness and went about intently on their business.

  2. Randa Says:

    Wow. Those are amazing pics. They are certainly impressive creatures. They’ve made an appearance in our yard a couple of times in the past (which is, as of course you know, a short fly from Murphy’s Point Prov. Park). I hadn’t realized quite how intimidating they look!

  3. burning silo Says:

    Thanks, Trix & Randa! Yes, we also find that Pileateds do seem to be fairly comfortable around humans — and yes, even more in the autumn. I guess that’s because they aren’t concerned about protecting young and are just busy looking for insects in tree bark, etc… When they’re working on a tree, they’re really quite approachable. Btw, something that we frequently see are Pileateds and Hairy woodpeckers moving through the forest together and tapping at the same trees. Sometimes it seems to be a bit territorial with one trying to tap closer and closer until the other moves on to the next tree.


  4. pablo Says:

    Yes, I do love those pileated woodpeckers. We have some at Roundrock, and they seem to be curious about us for they swoop overhead when we are out in open areas.

  5. burning silo Says:

    Pablo, a few years ago, while standing outside of my studio building with a neighbour’s 10 year old daughter, a Pileated came swooping over the tops of some nearby trees and straight towards us, doing that big dip that they make while flying. I’m sure it was entirely coincidental that it swooped down at us just at that very second, but it gave the girl quite a fright as it looked quite fierce. I laughed, the girl shrieked, and the woodpecker rocketed back up and away over the top of the studio, probably just as surprised as we were. — bev

  6. Brian Says:

    Thought this was nicley done, and had lots of good points, have seen some sweet trees with feeding sights around, the live footage isent far away!!! hahahaaa