For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpeckers

Original Air Date: Feb. 28, 2001 Rerun Dates: Feb. 19, 2004

A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers is spending a lot of time in Laura’s box elder trees.

Audio missing


One of my favorite trees on the planet is a box elder tree. Not just any box elder–my box elder–the one right outside my bedroom window. Over the years I’ve lived in my house, this tree has provided food for hundreds–maybe even thousands–of Evening Grosbeaks. It started out young and healthy, but during the course of the 20 years we’ve lived here, it’s gotten old and creaky. A few years ago, one limb was rotten enough to allow a pair of Downy Woodpeckers to chisel out a nest. The male would drum his romantic beat every morning, insistent enough to rouse us from sleep without being so loud as to irritate, and I’d watch this devoted pair at their day’s work, building a home together, taking turns incubating eggs, then sharing in child-rearing responsibilities. When starlings started harassing them, trying to take over the cavity, I started harassing the starlings, throwing stones and yelling out the window the moment they appeared.

Another year a pair of chickadees used their dainty little beaks to hollow out a nest in an even more rotten branch of the box elder. These two chickadees were individually recognizable-the female had lost her tail, probably to a predator–it was only a couple of millimeters long when I first noticed her, and grew back very slowly. The male had some scar tissue next to one eye that made the little feathers growing on it come in backward, giving his face a sort of funky look.

These chickadees and I became friends–I started setting mealworms out for them in a little acrylic window feeder, and they quickly learned to fly in the moment I appeared at the window. That spring they were as intent on looking into my window at me as I was at looking out the window at them.

A few more big limbs of the box elder have died since then, and sometimes we wonder if it isn’t time to chop it down. But this won’t be the year, because suddenly, out of the blue, my box elder has become the tree of choice for a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. Every day for the past week I’ve been able to see both the male and the female chiseling away at one particularly rotten limb.

So far they’ve made a good start on three different holes before discovering some flaw. In once case the wood was too rotten and a big chunk fell out, making the hole misshapen and way too big. In another case the wood wasn’t rotten enough, and they couldn’t scoop out decayed sawdust from the inside after chiseling out a beak’s length of hard stuff. These false starts aren’t a total waste of energy for them, since they are getting their food out of the wood even as they hammer into it. And when they’re not here, squirrels gather at the diggings, to lap at sap or something they find really interesting.

I don’t know if the third hole–the one the pileateds are working on now–will pan out or if they’ll start yet another one, or if they’ll even finally abandon the tree and look elsewhere for housing, but right now I’m in heaven watching them less than four feet from my face through the window. This dear old box elder is reaching the end of its days, but it’s sure going out with style and grace, giving itself to nurture and shelter one of the most splendid birds on the planet.