We’ve always been drawn to Pileated Woodpeckers. Who can resist these magnificent birds, with their striking yodel, two-foot wingspan and bright red crests set against more than a foot of jet-black plumage?
So when two of these woodpeckers showed up for several days running in a dead tree right next-door to our campsite, we were captivated. It was hard to get anything done; they’d sound off a dozen times a day, and I’d have to drop everything and see what was going on.
Something was up indeed: It’s springtime – and we had a romance brewing before our prying eyes.
We’ve always had to catch Pileated Woodpeckers in brief glimpses when they’d appear on a birding walk, or zip by overhead on their way to somewhere else. This encounter turned out to be different. The pair decided to build their nesting cavity 30 steps from our spot on the edge of the busy Land Yacht Harbor Airstream park in Central Florida where we’re spending a few weeks. They seemed used to people and didn’t mind my keeping up with their progress.
They chose a tall dead pine and started chopping out their cavity 25 feet up the trunk. The male did most of the work in the beginning, then the female took over. She was tireless, working away for hours at a time, then picking up mouthfuls of chips and tossing them out the front door as if spitting tobacco juice.
Here’s a video of the two working on their nest, to the Beatle’s love song, “I will:”
One day, they flew away from their worksite and met at the top of a nearby tree. It turned out to be a kind of date: He made his move. She reciprocated. Then they sat side by side for a few minutes, a rare sight for these busy birds. Pileated Woodpeckers are known to stick together through the nesting season, and these two were constantly with each other after that.
Almost everywhere we look this time of year, birds are pairing up. A couple of Sand-Hill Cranes have found each other in the campground itself and waltz around like permanent residents. Two Bald Eagles are roosting not far away. The Florida Scrub-Jays and grasshopper sparrows we’ve been following and writing about in the center of the state are moving toward mating season.
But none has shared their spring season the way these woodpeckers have.
Within a week, their cavity was deep enough for the female to climb inside and go to work on the interior decorating. The male spent a portion of the day on the top branches of their tree, scouting for trouble, then shimmying down the tree to inspect the progress at the nest.
Before long, she was ready to spend her days inside. When the light was right, you could peer through the hole and see her arranging and rearranging herself. Pileated Woodpecker eggs take about 15 days to incubate, then the chicks spend another month or so in the nest before fledging. That means we won’t get to see the offspring, since we’re leaving at the end of the month.
But just getting to watch this stage has been a highlight of our spring, and a reminder of the pull of nature and the power of romance, no matter the species. In a few weeks, all across the country, we’ll begin to see a new generation of birds yipping for food, peaking out of nests and beginning to make their way in the world.
Among them, if all goes well, will be a couple of freshly minted Pileated Woodpeckers.
And here’s a gallery of some of the scenes we’ve been lucky enough to watch these past few weeks: