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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Teachable Moments

When visiting the Arboretum, I constantly listen for sounds. Locating the source of a bird call or an unusual noise can be challenging, but also very rewarding. This week, when I heard a loud hammering noise at first I thought, that must be coming from the new trail construction. 

I changed course slightly and expected for the sound to remain somewhat distant, since I was an eighth of a mile from the trail work. Surprisingly, after just a few steps I realized the noise was now behind me. Clearly, it had nothing to do with the trail construction. I stopped and turned - searching the forest. I spotted Chip, our local mature male pileated woodpecker, quietly gathering food while Squall, his young son, watched. The hammering continued. Neither of the male birds were the source of the sound.

Finally, I spotted a flash of motion at the base of another tree. It turned out to be one of a Squall's sisters. She had been hidden by ferns while loudly hammering away at the bark of a douglas fir tree.  

She twisted and turned, inserting her tongue in the cavity she made while searching for her reward. I suspect she must be older than Squall, given her more mature feeding skills. Either that, or Squall is simply enjoying the easy life.

After a few moments, Squall joined Chip and was rewarded for his patience. From the Birds of North America website (citation below) I learned that immature pileated woodpeckers have less barbs on their feathers. This explains why Squall's top knot is more bushy and not as sleek as Chip's.

Chip moved on - while Squall lingered in the sunshine.

Squall's sister, let's call her Windy, took a break and stretched a bit.

It is seldom that I catch a photo which displays any of the white on the top side of their flight feathers. I find this white at the base of their primaries to be surprising. Especially because it is usually hidden under the covering of their covert feathers. Click here to visit the Feather Atlas and get a more complete view. I wonder why nature has endowed them with this apparently unused coloring.

The young birds took to the air following Chip. I lost them among the trees but luckily we were all headed in the same direction, and a few moments later I found them again. There is just enough information in this photo to identify each of the individual birds. Can you tell which bird is which? 

The young birds watching Chip work could be considered one clue to his identity. At about this point I realized that Chip was teaching by example. Whether his teaching was intentional I do not know. Clearly, he was showing his offspring that hollow places in trees can hold water, soften the wood and attract edible insects. 

Clinging to the rope-like bark of the big-leafed maple tree, Chip feeds Squall. At the same time, Windy applies the lesson-learned and feeds herself. It is common knowledge among humans that females mature faster than males. I wonder if the same could be true for pileated woodpeckers?

Ultimately, even Squall takes a turn feeding in the cavity. 

Note: This is a great example of why pileated woodpeckers are key enablers of other creatures. Their ability to excavate a hole and provide future nesting sites, which may be used by a wide variety of other lifeforms, is highly unique. To my knowledge, their excavation abilities outpace all other local forms of woodpeckers and other wildlife as well.

After gathering a few morsels from the gnarly bark of a douglas fir, Chip provides Squall with a taste of the lifeforms found on and around this species of tree.

Chip's next stop was on the straight fine bark of a western red cedar, however his actual goal was the bright red berries hanging on the neighboring plant.

Once again Chip provides Squall with a teaching taste. In this case, it contained a little  huckleberry heaven.

Almost immediately, Windy jumped into the elegant little bush and began plucking berries with gusto. 

While her silhouette makes identification difficult, it does provide a rare example of a pileated woodpecker perched on a small branch looking almost like a large songbird. Even at her young age, you can see the tips of her tail feathers show some wear. They lack the normal rounded shape of most bird feathers. Normally, pileated woodpeckers land on the sides of trees or on larger more substantial branches. In both cases, they usually use their tails for support which increases the wear. Their tails are being used like a third leg in almost all the photos in this post.

Their final stop, which I observed, was in the cavity of a broken western red cedar. The fine straight grain of the wood provides a beautiful contrast as Chip offers Squall a taste of the food he collected from within the tree.

Never before have I noticed pileated woodpeckers making so many brief stops, on such a variety of trees and plants. I find it impossible to imagine that Chip was unaware of the valuable information he was providing to his offspring. It also seems unlikely that he just happened to always be feeding Squall instead of Windy. I truly believe that Chip varied the level of instruction and reward to fit the student and maximize the teachable moments.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


PS: In the earlier photo, where I asked you to identify the three birds, Chip was in the middle. The darker red on his head is the clue which easily identifies him as the older more mature bird. If it had been a closer photo, you could have also seen Chip's yellow irises - one of which is visible in the first huckleberry photo. The young birds' irises are still a dark grey-blue color. Squall is the young bird at the top of the photo. Both young birds can of course be categorized by the paleness of their red top-knots. Squall can by distinguished from Windy by the reddish malar stripe and forehead which only males have. By elimination, Windy must to be the bird at the bottom of the photo.

Recommended Citation
Bull, Evelyn L. and Jerome A. Jackson. 2011. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/148