Pileated Woodpeckers Growing Up

photo Pileated Woodpecker Nest and YoungBack in early May, when I heard about a Pileated Woodpecker nest in the woods a few miles from my home, I was thrilled—I’d always wanted to photograph this species’ activities at the nest. Checking it out, it took me only a short time to realize that the adults were already feeding young. But the excitement really ramped up a couple of weeks later when the nestlings were almost old enough to leave the nest. By now they were really photogenic as they poked their heads out of the entrance of the nest cavity in a big dead tree trunk, ever watchful for their approaching parents.

The youngsters were getting noisy too! Earlier in May their rasping begging calls were only faintly audible from within the tree and only when an adult was present. Later on the begging became louder and more persistent as the nestlings grew older and more demanding, intensifying to the point of sounding frantic just before they were fed. In fact, for several days before the young left the nest, I could hear a constant kak-kak-kak in the distance while I walked down the trail into the woods each morning. I was glad for that sound cue, because by now the trees were so thickly leafed out that I had worried that I would have trouble relocating the nest tree!

photo of a nestling calling from nest holeBob McGuire joined me one morning for sound recording. We knew the growing woodpeckers would start practicing adult vocalizations before they left home, something we wanted to be sure to record. We weren’t disappointed—there in the entrance of the hole sat the biggest of the young birds, demanding attention by giving the far-carrying adult call every few minutes as if to remind its parents, however distant they were, that it was still hungry. In human terms I suppose it’s like a teenager who’s reached the age where he’s started talking back to his long-suffering parents!

The nestling’s adult-like outburst sounds very different from its harsh begging calls. Listen to Bob’s first recording below, in which the begging nestling suddenly pauses and gives an adult call, followed by the parent bird responding from nearby with a long sequence of wuk calls.

Pileated Woodpecker fledgling calls, 23 May 2012, 5:45am, near Ithaca NY. Bob McGuire.

In Bob’s second recording, the nestling again gives an adult-like call, followed by a sequence of raspy begging calls. Then you’ll hear a feeding sequence in which the begging takes on a gagging quality as the adult is regurgitating food into the youngsters’ open bills, followed by more begging from several nestlings.

Pileated Woodpecker fledgling calls, 23 May 2012, 6:27am, near Ithaca NY. Bob McGuire.

Within a couple of days of these images and sound recordings the young Pileateds had left the nest and were following their parents around the woods, on their way to independence.

In terms of call development, it is interesting that the adult outburst given by the young is quite distinct from their raspy begging notes. One does not gradually transform into the other over time. The adult outburst is unique unto itself and appears more-or-less fully developed when it first occurs, though perhaps it sounds a bit harsh at first. Just for comparison, the recording below by Lang Elliott features outbursts given by two different adult birds, the last one also giving a sequence of typical wuk calls:

Adult Pileated Woodpecker outbursts plus typical wuk calls. Recorded by Lang Elliott.


  1. Marie.. beautiful photos & sounds. I am located in the Catskill region and while taking photos of the glorious foliage this fall.. I noted the location of many huge dead trees thinking they may be interesting to photograph in contrast to new green leaves this spring. My question is when do mating pairs begin to be active nesting? After seeing your article I bet those hollowed out trees are mighty active.
    Thanks for any information & photo tips.

    E. Smith

  2. The babies have a somewhat unusual begging call. It has kind of a raspy quality. The other calls are just like the adults’.

  3. I really enjoyed getting to hear the vocalizations of the babies. Especially appreciated the evidence that the adult call emerges full blown and is distinct from the begging calls. Very interesting.

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