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A FEW OF THE PILEATED WOODPECKER’S SECRETS ARE REVEALED

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.

WINTER ROOSTING COVER FOR AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES

        With cold weather lurking just around the corner, the thoughts of many backyard wildlife enthusiasts have turned to providing winter roosting sites for their backyard bird neighbors.  As such, some are winterizing nesting boxes or erecting roosting boxes.  These measures help birds that roost in cavities such residents as Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, and eastern bluebirds.  However, little thought is given to providing winter roosts for birds that do not use natural or manmade cavities as nighttime roosts. 

       The truth of the matter is most backyards such as sparrows, finches, robins, mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, and a host of others roost in vegetation.  One such bird is the American goldfinch. 

       The American goldfinch roosts in dense vegetation. The birds often roost among the needles of conifers.  When they cannot locate such a roost site and are forced to spend the night in an open spot, their risk of succumbing to the cold dramatically increases.  In fact, when they roost in thick leafy vegetation, they can use one-third less energy to survive a frigid night than they would if they roosted in a more exposed spot.  The energy saved can mean the difference between life and death.

       Do you have any thick shrubs or trees in your yard that goldfinches and other birds could roost for a winter roost site this winter?  

BACKYARD SECRET – BLUE JAYS COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR CRESTS

       We all recognize that blue jays communicate with one another using a wide variety of calls; however, it is less widely known that these noisy birds also communicate with their cohorts using their crests.  In fact, you can learn much about a blue jay’s state of mind by looking at how high a jay’s crest is held above its head.

       Blue jays use their crests to demonstrate its level of calmness and aggression.  For example, the next time you see one or more blue jays placidly feeding in your yard, undoubtedly, their crests will be held close to their heads.  However, if a family cat comes into their view; their crests will instantaneously become erect.  On the other hand, should the cat turn around and walk in the other direction realizing the feline no longer poses a threat; the birds’ crests will drop.  Similarly, if a blue jay is startled by the arrival of a bird the blue jay perceives as a competitor for the food it is dining on, such as an American crow, the jay will erect its crest.  By the same, if a cardinal alights near a feeding jay, the blue jay might not raise its crest at all. 

       How high a jay erects its crest is indicative of its perceived level of threat or agitation.  For example, if a blue jay notices a hawk circling in the sky some distance away, it may not fully raise its crest.  However, once the hawk flies close enough to where the jay senses it poses an imminent threat, its crest will then become fully erect.

 

ATTRACTING PILEATED WOODPECKERS TO A FEEDER IS A CHALLENGE

              It is truly a challenge to attract a pileated woodpecker to a feeder.  I have been feeding birds for more than a half a century and have never fed a morsel of food to a pileated woodpecker.   However, pileated woodpeckers do visit backyard bird feeders.  According to data collected in Project FeederWatch, less than a quarter of the people that feed birds in the Southeast host pileated woodpeckers.

            Personally, I can count on one hand the number of people that have told me they have been able to attract our largest woodpecker to their feeders.  However, several years ago Leon and Julie Neel told me that pileated woodpeckers visited a  homemade suet feeder outside their home near Thomasville.  This feeder was truly unique and beautiful.  The feeder was a large cypress knee.  Suet was packed into a number of large holes drilled around the knee.  This feeder was both functional and beautiful.

            If you want to meet the challenge of trying to attract a pileated woodpecker to your feeders, there are a few facts you need to know.  First,

The pileated woodpecker was not considered a feeder bird until the 1950s.  Since that time, pileated woodpeckers have visited feeders more frequently.

            If a pileated woodpecker begins visiting your feeder, it will typically be extremely cautious.  However, its trepidation will somewhat diminish with time.

            Initially, only one bird will visit a feeder.  However, don’t be surprised if the bird’s mate visits later.  The reason for this is the members of  a  pair of pileated woodpeckers maintain a bond with one another throughout the entire year.  In addition, they occupy  the same territory throughout all seasons.  However, they are more tolerant of other pileated woodpeckers that might enter their territory during the winter.

            The best food to use to attract pileated woodpeckers is suet.  You can use either plain or peanut butter suet. 

            Suet should be offered in a large feeder.  Large feeders attached to the trunk of a tree work well.  Suet can also be smeared into the bark of  a tree.  Some folks have been successful in attracting  the birds to large log suet feeders suspended on  poles.  Others smear a layer of suet between two slabs of wood, which are attached to a tree.

            If you are going to try to meet the pileated woodpecker challenge this winter, go into it with realistic expectations.  Chances are you will not be successful.  However, if are patient, you just may be rewarded with the rare opportunity of being able to see pileated woodpeckers on a regular basis. 

BACKYARD SECRET – MALE BLUEBIRDS APPEAR TO SING WITH THEIR BILLS CLOSED

     If you have ever watched eastern meadowlarks or grasshopper sparrows singing from atop a fencepost, their bills will be wide open.  However, if you take the time to watch a male eastern bluebird singing from a branch in your backyard, its beak will seem to be completely closed.  The truth the matter is, if you are able to view the bird through a pair of binoculars or spotting scope you will learn that its bill is actually barely open.  I think that is truly an amazing feat!

      

BACKYARD SECRET — WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS & DARK-EYED JUNCOS HYBRIDIZE

       Some ten percent of all species of birds hybridize.  Two of the birds that hybridize with one another are the white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco.

       Among the places where white-throated sparrow/dark-eyed juncos hybrids are known to occur are Canada, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arkansas, and Georgia.

       Since both species are routinely seen throughout most Georgia during the winter, it is possible that one or more of these rare birds has visited your yard.

       As you might expect, hybrids will display traits of both species.  Although, the plumage of these birds is highly variable, many have pink bills, brown wings, and gray coloration on their breasts and heads.  Their songs are known to exhibit bits and pieces of the songs sung by each species.

       Antidotal evidence suggests these unlikely hybrids are more often seen in the company of sparrows than juncos.

       If you pay close attention to the sparrows visiting your feeders this year, you just might spot one of these unusual birds.  If you do observe a sparrow that you feel might be a hybrid, take a picture of it, and let me know.  Who knows?  There may be more of these odd birds flying about than we realize.

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

BACKYARD SECRET-AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY IS EASY TO PROPAGATE

       Recently I wrote about the how birds are attracted to American beautyberry.  In response to this blog, one of our fellow bloggers, Elizabeth Neace, was kind enough let us know this beautiful native shrub can easily be rooted using cuttings.  This is great news for anyone wanting to incorporate this native into his or her landscape.

HOUSE FINCH EATING AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY

       I want to thank Elizabeth for sharing her backyard secret with us.  I am sure many folks will benefit from this valuable tip.

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.