Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Just Happened?!?

I'm still scratching my head trying to piece it all together. I was wrapping up a trip through the Natural Area Teaching Lab at the UF campus this morning when I saw a Pileated Woodpecker fly over to a snag. I watched Pileated Woodpeckers excavating a nest in another snag nearby a few weeks ago and thought maybe I might get a glimpse of some woodpecker chicks. As I got closer, though, I heard a lot of bird ruckus. Bluejays were screeching out "thief, thief, thief", the Mockingbird was making a lot of noise, and Red Headed Woodpeckers and other smaller birds were diving from the tree branches. Something was wrong. Then I saw and heard the Crows sitting in branches on either side of the tree.
Crows at the Woodpecker Snag
It looked like the Crows were trying to get something. Probably woodpecker eggs or chicks! I hurried over, hoping that my presence would shoo them off. (I know, I know, Crows have to eat, too. But I was emotionally invested in these particular woodpeckers, so I felt duty calling.) I stood near the tree, watching the activity and feeling sad at the likelihood that the woodpeckers would lose in this particular match.
Scaring off the Crows?
But then something odd caught my eye. The Crows were focused on something on the branch. It was a Yellow Rat Snake! More drama in the Pines!
Yellow Rat Snake!
I guess I had misjudged the Crows. It appeared that they were just joining in with the other birds to chase off the snake. After a while, though, the Crows flew away, accepting the outcome. The smaller birds also left. But the Pileated Woodpecker remained, which made me think that she was protecting her nest.
Guarding the Nest?

One Good Peck!
I watched in fascination as the woodpecker hopped up and down the tree, closing in on the snake, but never getting too close. It seemed like a big bird like that with its powerful bill could just peck the snake to death. But I also know that a big snake like that can eat a squirrel, so the woodpecker was smart to keep its distance. I couldn't tell at first if the snake was trying to get into the nest or if it was finished, but when I walked to the other side of the tree I got my answer. I could see 4 distinct round lumps--presumably the woodpecker eggs. The deed was done.
4 Round Lumps
Then the snake started inching down the tree. The woodpecker seemed interested in preventing this from happening. The snake persisted, and then disappeared from my view. I thought the snake had decided to climb into the nest cavity. I figured it was either going in for more, or was settling in to digest the big meal. The drama was over and I felt sad for the woodpeckers. All that work of nest excavating and laying eggs wasted. I packed up my camera and started to walk away. Then I heard a rustle in the tree and turned just in time to see the snake drop some 60 feet from the branch to the ground with a startling "thump"! I thought for a second about walking in and trying to find it, but came quickly to my senses and decided not to trail blaze. Anyway, that snake would be long gone by the time I started walking. Now, I thought, it was really all over. But wait--there's more! With the snake out of the picture, the woodpeckers started flying around again. 2 Red Headed woodpeckers flew to the snag and scuttled up and down the branches. Then the Pileated woodpecker flew to the tree next door where I had watched the nest building in several weeks ago. She flew to the nest opening and waited.
Meanwhile, Back at the Other Tree...
A Downy woodpecker flew to an upper branch in that same snag and started drumming. Then the Pileated poked her head into the nest, then climbed inside! She stayed inside for about 30 seconds, poked her head out and then flew off.
Off in Search of Food for the Babies!?
So, there is a chance that the Pileated nest is still intact, and there may be babies inside. I believe now that the eggs the snake ate belonged to the Red Headed woodpeckers, and that the Pileated stood watch by the other snag to make sure the snake didn't get into her own nest next door. That could still happen, and the chicks will be vulnerable as long as they are in the nest, even if they are big. But the amount of bird cooperation in this episode was extraordinary! And layer upon layer of intrigue! I could still have the whole story wrong, but this is the best I can come up with. I'm tired just thinking about it!


  1. It's a jungle out there! Or another neighborhood where the creatures live out their own complex social lives while getting their basic needs met. All that going on right over our heads! Thank you so much for being the curious, sympathetic human on the scene - and for sharing it with us.

    1. Hi Kelli,
      Thank you! Yeah, it's amazing what goes on out there, all the time, big and small time, with or without us! One of these days we have to get together for a walk.

  2. I just love bird watching! So much drama! In our neighborhood we have tall, tall pines with woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, mockingbirds, red-shouldered hawks, carolina wrens, tufted titmice, crows... all eating, fighting over territory, chasing each other around, and bickering like old married couples. It's awesome.

    1. You are so right! I think if I could get enough material for a whole book if I just sat outside and watched what goes on around my feeders for a morning! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!--Katherine