Ask SIB: Why is Pileated Woodpecker making a hole in the fall?

Pileated Woodpecker – Palmetto Lake – Nancy Brown

Question: Yesterday a male pileated woodpecker started working on the opening to one of our owl boxes. We assumed he wanted the opening larger to get in for some bugs. He worked on it for a few hours (till dusk) and then is back this morning and has made the opening larger. He now goes in and out, pecks a little in the box, but is back making the opening larger from the outside. I know this is not their normal nesting season, so wonder what he is doing! Thanks for any input. – Paula Adamson

Answer: I had a similar question a couple years ago when a Pileated Woodpecker was excavating a hole in a dead tree in the conservancy lot across the street in the fall.  I therefore knew the answer but had to find the source of my knowledge.  I’m not sure if it’s the same source, but the answer is the same.  In National Audubon’s BirdNote, the podcast Listen for Woodpeckers Making Their Winter Homes This Fall says

It turns out that some woodpecker species stay year round in the region where they nest, while others migrate south in winter. Those that remain through the colder months – well, it’s safe to say they’re not nesting now. No, these fall excavators are chiseling out roosting cavities, snug hollows where they’ll shelter during the cold nights of fall and winter.  

Many woodpeckers roost in such cavities, usually by themselves. Even the young, once they’re fledged, have to find their own winter quarters.

With woodpeckers, once the nights turn cold, it’s every bird for itself.

I found another article Animals in Fall: The Pileated Woodpecker published by Shadow Lake Nature Preserve in the state of Washington.  It states:

Have you ever seen small mounds of wood chips at the base of trees? If you live in the Pacific Northwest, during the fall season that tree is probably the new home of a Pileated Woodpecker! This species of woodpecker is non-migratory, meaning that it does not fly south for the winter. They excavate holes in several different trees that they will nest in throughout the cold winter.

I think it’s safe to say, your Pileated Woodpecker thinks your owl box would make a nice winter home.

– Judy Morr

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