It’s a bird-eat-bird world: Pileated Woodpeckers on the attack

Part of our year-end series on the most popular Flying Lessons posts of 2021

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Two male Pileated Woodpeckers battle for supremacy. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

We heard the clamor from our woodpecker’s nest and instantly knew something was up. The bird’s usual call was replaced with a high-pitched, staccato screech and both the male and female birds leaped around their tree as if the place was on fire.

Last week, we wrote about the idyllic life these two Pileated Woodpeckers created within a few steps of where we are camping. This week, we got a reminder that nature is unpredictable and sometimes violent. By the end of the week, the pair were forced out of their nest just as they were trying to start a family.

The cries we heard that day were the precursor to an attack from another Pileated Woodpecker who wanted to take the place of the male. We scurried over to see what was going on just as an attack was about to begin. The two male birds jumped from one branch to another, howling furiously. Then they tumbled to the ground as if in a western, falling head over tails as they wrestled. We though the duel might be over, then the two males flew to the top of the nesting tree and began circling each other while trading jabs and squawks.

We’re closing the year by publishing the most popular posts of 2021 — which was our year of travel across the country. Each weekend, we’ll run an updated version of the original story, a kind of tour of the birdscape from North Carolina to Hawaii, Florida to Wyoming. We’ll feature Snow Geese, Sandpipers, Hummingbirds, Tree Swallows, Pileated Woodpeckers and Palilas, the rare the Hawaiian honeycreeper. We hope you’ll come along with us on the tour. But if you’d like to skip ahead or go back and read one you missed, click on the links on these birds. Wishing you a wonderful year of birding ahead. 

Pileateds are the largest woodpeckers in North America, more than a foot tall with a wingspan of two feet. They are powerful birds with large claws and sharp beaks. All of those tools came into play as these two battled for the advantage.

Finally, our original male took a powerful swipe at the intruder, who then flew off in what turned out to be the end of the threat. Both the male and female climbed up and down their nesting tree, ready for another assault that never came. Eventually, they settled down and went back to readying the nest they’d worked on for the past two weeks.

Here’s how it looked in a video: 

The bees take over.

The frustrated Pileated comes back to what was his nest to check things out.

However, Mother Nature wasn’t done with these two. The following day, when we went to check on our birds, we discovered their nest had been taken over by a hive of bees. The bees moved into the cavity and swarmed over the opening entrance. The nest the two birds worked on for weeks was no longer theirs.

Over the next few days, the woodpeckers came back from time to time to check on their tree. While they could battle off another woodpecker, they were no match for the bees. We went looking to see if they’d set up another nest nearby, but never found it and didn’t see the two together again.

The second half of our Pileated story is a reminder: It’s a bird-eat-bird world. We’ve redone our gallery from last week to include the twists and turns these birds ended up facing:

 

 

 

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