Have you ever stopped to think about how little you know about woodpeckers? I know I have. For most of us, our knowledge of them is based largely on fleeting sightings of the woodpeckers foraging for food on our backyard trees, hearing their loud calls reverberate through our neighborhoods and their incessant drumming on trees far out in the woods behind our houses. This is especially true of the pileated woodpecker. Even though it is our largest woodpecker, it does not visit our feeders as often as its smaller kin do. Fortunately, for those of us that ponder such things, biologists have unlocked some the secrets that have shrouded the private life of the pileated woodpecker. Let’s take a look at the fascinating winter roosting behavior of this impressive bird.
As a rule, pileated woodpeckers do not roost in their nesting cavity. Instead, like many of Georgia’s woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers usually chisel out roughly four cavities that they use solely for roosting. Each is excavated in a dead tree. However, in one study, as many as 12 roosting cavities were documented being used by a single bird. These hollows are critical to their survival during extremely cold winter weather. The reason for this is good roosting cavities provide the birds with places to sleep out of sight of nighttime predators, as well as protection from the deleterious effects of frigid winds and temperatures. The insulating affect of a roosting site can be so significant and can ultimately determine whether or not a woodpecker will survive an extremely cold night.
Biologists have learned that roosting pileated woodpeckers do not sleep on the bottoms of their roosting sites. To the contrary, they sleep perched upright clutching on to the interior side of the roost site with their bills neatly tucked beneath a wing.
For reasons that are not fully understood, pileated woodpeckers might roost of up to four consecutive days and they suddenly begin roosting in another cavity. Alternate roosting sites are often located quite some distance away.
I will probably never witness a pileated woodpecker going to roost late on a winter afternoon just before my neighborhood is cloaked in darkness. However, even though I know a smidgeon about the roosting behavior of this remarkable bird, I simply cannot imagine how challenging it is for this impressive bird to weather the bone-chilling cold on a crisp, clear, frigid winter night. However, I am glad they are up to the challenge.
I love woodpeckers but the Downey and the Yellow-bellied are my two favorites. I have 1 – 2 pairs of Downeys’ in my backyard, but I have not been able to locate their nest, but I did see 1 – 2 babies that they brought to the feeders to eat, this summer. They have been around for about 3 years now.
Martha, here is a tip that might help you locate a downy nesting cavity — the opening to their nesting cavities is often located on the underside of a limb.
Very interesting, Terry. We have 2 Pilates Woodpeckers, and maybe others, but I have videoed 2 out here foraging.
I agree, they are very interesting birds. One thing about winter that I like is that when the foliage is off the trees it is much easier to find foraging downy woodpeckers.