Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Coming of Age

On Thursday, Chip's hammering reverberated through the local neighborhood. I ran to the sound.

I found him on top of a power pole. Most houses in Montlake were built around 100 years ago. This pole appears to be of the same vintage. The ancient grain of the wood shows cracks and crevices that may harbor a few ants. Although, I suspect he was communicating his location by drumming on the small piece of wood sticking up from the top of the pole.

Carpenter ants are the favorite food of Pileated Woodpeckers. Generally, they find the ants in wood that is soft, moist, and rotting as opposed to hard, dry, and cracked. (I remember watching Chip spend 45 minutes hammering through the side of a perfectly sound-looking Western Red Cedar. He then spent the next 45 minutes feeding. Evidently, the heart of the tree was full of ants.)

Chip quickly tired of drumming and retired to this horizontal crossbar. He spread his wings and laid down apparently enjoying the sunshine. A slightly more active female preened nearby.

Neighbors asked if they were a mated pair. Since the two were of opposite genders, it was a good question. 

(Females lack the red malar stripes and the red forehead which identifies the male Pileated Woodpeckers.) 

After a few more minutes, 'the pair' flew down from the pole and resumed looking for food. 

Sadly, their presence irritated an aggressive American Crow.

A tighter view of the female also shows some key characteristics which indicate her immaturity. 

Here is a photo from February, of Goldie - Chip's mate. Can you see any obvious differences between the two females? 

The most obvious is their top knots. The young bird's is an orangish-red as opposed to the brilliant red of her mother. Also, her white feathers near the base of her bill are pure white. She has not spent months excavating ants and their larva which has slowly discolored the white feathers above and behind Goldie's bill.

It is somewhat harder to see that the young bird's irises are also darker than those of her parents. Chip's golden-yellow eyes are by far the lightest irises in the family. They are shown clearly in the first photo above.

This photo is from early June when the young Pileated Woodpeckers were nearly ready to leave the nest. You can easily compare the color difference between their top knots and Chip's. You may read more of their nesting story by Clicking Here.

Their erect head feathers indicate the young birds' excitement about the prospect of food. On the other hand, Chip's top knot was totally relaxed. He has fed his offspring hundreds of times over the years. It comes with the job and is not really a cause for parental excitement.

I have seldom seen the parents traveling as a mated pair during the summer. Normally, I find each parent with one or two of the young. As the adults obtain food, the young benefit from 'just-in-time' feeding. In the process, the next generation also learns how and where to find food. Click Here to read about an example from 2018.

Pileated Woodpecker pairs remain in their territory year-round. In the Fall and Winter, they can often be found feeding relatively close to each other. Sometimes, they will occasionally call back and forth, apparently reassuring each other that they are within earshot especially when they are out of sight. 

In early Spring, they stay fairly close while nest building and mating. Later in the Spring, they working together but do so separately. While one incubates the eggs and protects the nest the other is usually away finding food. Then they switch roles and repeat. 

As the young and get close to fledging both adults begin hunting for food. This is also done separately and they return to feed the young based on their individual success. Finally, as mentioned above, during the summer the feeding, teaching, and protection of the young are often done separately. I don't know if the young choose which parent to follow or if the adults choose which offspring to feed.

In late June of this year, almost two weeks after the young left the nest, my friend Tom, sent me a couple of messages. Tom spotted Pileated Woodpeckers on the telephone pole near his home. In this photo, Chip was on the shady side of the pole, preening his wings.

Soon he moved to the top and the two young females worked their way up the pole, obviously hoping to be fed.

When her begging became a bit too close and incessant, I was surprised to see Chip peck in the direction of one of the young. It appeared to be a reprimand rather than an infliction of harm. 

A week later, I found Chip picking fruit from a tree near the serviceberries in the south end of the Arboretum. When an American Crow came to investigate Chip quickly left the tree. On this occasion, I did not see any other family members.

Five days later, while walking below Monty and Marsha's eagle nest, I heard what sounded like a branch breaking. I jumped, turned, and peered through the foliage and there was Chip excavating ants from a log. 

After he secured a full load, he flew to the side of a cottonwood tree and met with one of his offspring.

At this point, the young had been out of the nest for over three weeks and at least this one was still being fed by Chip. By the way, the process of putting food deep inside her mouth was repeated four or five times, without Chip leaving the tree to secure more food.

This week, I did not see the young female begging for food. There was even a moment when Chip landed on a tree trunk just above her. He was in the perfect position to deliver food, but he did not. They both flew and landed a few feet apart. Each bird began searching for their own food. The young bird worked on the far side of this small European Ash.

Chip inspected a nearby stump. The crow momentarily perched in the ash tree before diving at Chip.

Chip immediately evacuated to the nearest telephone pole. 

The crow took over the stump. It was obviously searching for food. It apparently envied Chip's success. The crow wandered around, pulled up a piece of moss, and tossed a chip to the ground. At this angle, you can see a hint of a light-colored gape on the crow. This indicates it is a first-year bird and still learning where to find food.

No matter how hard it looked the crow could not find what Chip had been eating. Apparently frustrated, the crow turned and flew at the young female on the tree.

 She traded places and flew to the stump. The crow chased her again.

 She flew to a lower position on the same pole as her father. The crow followed.

The young woodpecker and the young crow consider their options. Pileated Woodpeckers will often put a tree trunk, or a telephone pole, between themselves and any potential source of danger like hawks or eagles passing overhead.

In this case, I would not have been surprised if Chip had swooped down from his perch and chased the young crow away. However, I was startled when the young female came out from behind the pole and flashed her wings at the crow. The young crow immediately took to the air and left. 

The young woodpecker calmly hitched her way up to the top of the pole and settled down in the sun near her father. Suddenly, their relationship seemed different. It was as if a torch had passed between them. When push comes to shove, this young female has the fire and determination to do what needs to be done. I suspect she will be an excellent parent and protector of the next generation.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where Black Birders are always welcome!

Black Lives Matter,

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors, and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

What species is this? Is it native to Western Washington?

Scroll down for the answer.


Devil's Club: A native plant with an interesting formal name - oplopanax horridus. Click on the green lettering to learn more.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net


Here are a couple more photos for those who read to the end.
Chip and his maturing daughter.

This photo shows a curious row of bead-like bumps next to the top of Chip's bill. I looked through a number of old photos and found a few that showed somewhat similar bumps. There were however less of them and they were less consistently sized and spaced. I am wondering if they form as the woodpecker gets older - maybe these are due to the repeated slamming of its bill into trees or maybe they have been there all along and have just been overlooked.

Maybe I should have said underlooked. In general, this area is not visible in most photos in part due to the birds being positioned above their photographers. In the first photo in this post the bumps are not visible despite the relatively good angle and proximity. That may be partially because I tend to focus on the bird's eye so the bill is slightly blurry.

I also wonder if there are bumps on both sides of the bill? Do the bumps have value to the birds? Do they form for a reason? These are mysteries I would love to solve. During my next visit to the Burke or Slater museums I hope to investigate their collections. In any case, I will certainly be watching closer while taking photos in the field.


  1. Wonderfull Larry I am always impressed with your posts and interesting questions which are really stimulating. At are whidbey home had a woodpecker drumming on the tin flashing around the chimney. I thought maybe he was working against his reflection. Stated at it for close to one hr. Very loud but fun to see how hard he worked at scaring the other/himself away. Thanks again for all the joy you provide for us "got to stay at home people". Daniel

  2. Thank you for your kind words and taking the time to let me know you are enjoying my efforts. Very interesting how long the woodpecker kept after flashing reflection. Stay Healthy and Happy Birding from home. Whidbey is certainly a great place to be confined!