The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a unique American bird. These crow-sized members of the Picidae family occur throughout the eastern half of the USA, across the south of Canada, and south to California in the west.
Birders can spot juveniles from summer to fall, but what do they look like, and how do they differ from their parents?
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers resemble their parents, although they are smaller when they first fledge. The young birds have a shorter red crest than their parents and brown, rather than yellow eyes. Juveniles also have a yellowish bill gape and are duller overall.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers accompany their parents for their first few months after leaving the nest. Birdwatchers can listen out for their soft begging and contact calls and watch the adult birds feed their young. The family group may stick together or split up with one or more young following each parent.
There’s a whole lot more to learn about juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers. Read along with us for some great identification tips and some fascinating insights.
Close up of a juvenile Pileated Woodpecker foraging for food on a tree stump
Pileated Woodpeckers are large, bold, and easily identifiable birds of American forests. However, they start their lives as helpless hatchlings that weigh just half an ounce (14 g).
The baby birds are born blind, pink, and featherless, but their growth is rapid in their first two weeks. Apart from the differences in crest size and eye and gape color mentioned above, juveniles resemble adults by the time they are ready to leave the nest.
Like their parents, juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers are large forest birds with black bodies, white stripes on their faces and neck, and a prominent patch of red plumage on their heads. These birds have large grayish feet, a longish tail, and a stout pointed bill.
Juvenile male and female Pileated Woodpeckers have notably different head plumage, so you can tell them apart as early as nine days after hatching. Like their parents, young females have black stripes on their cheeks, and males have red stripes.
Males also have a red crown that extends to the base of the bill, whereas females have a red crown and a black forehead.
Keep reading to learn more about the size of juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers.
Close up portrait of a juvenile Pileated Woodpecker
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers fledge the nest when they are 3.5 to 4.5 weeks old. At this age, they are about two-thirds of their adult weight.
Studies from New York and Arkansas found the juvenile weight to be between 5.7 and 8.6 ounces (163g - 244g) on the day before fledging. For comparison, adults typically weigh between 8.8 and 12.3 ounces (250g - 350g).
Juveniles also fledge before their flight feathers have reached their adult size. These feathers measure about 75% of their adult length when they depart the nest, partly explaining their awkward and clumsy flight.
Pileated Woodpeckers complete their first molt (pre-juvenile) while in the nest. They begin their second (preformative) molt before leaving the nest and finish this incomplete molt by October.
Young juvenile Pileated Woodpecker perched on the branch of a tree
Both parents feed the baby Pileated Woodpeckers. The adults return to the nest every hour when the chicks are young, but they slow down to every second hour as the young birds grow.
The adults feed their chicks a diet of insects, first delivering the meal inside the nest but remaining outside when the hungry young birds learn to poke their heads out of the nest entrance.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers receive food from their parents until the fall. A young bird begs by calling softly with a slightly open mouth. This prompts their parents to provide a regurgitated meal. Round-headed beetle larvae and other insects are important food sources for the growing birds.
The juveniles must learn to feed themselves by the time they disperse in the fall. They will feed on ants, beetle larvae, nuts, and fruits.
Pileated Woodpeckers search for food by drilling into logs, stumps, dead trees, and rotten parts of living trees. They use their long, barbed tongues to extract the insects from their tunnels and colonies in the wood.
Pileated Woodpeckers also pick their prey off the trunk and limbs or lift off tree bark to find insects hiding beneath. These large Woodpeckers will visit large suet feeders in backyards and can be attracted to fruiting plants like hackberry, elderberry, sumac, and dogwood.
Pileated Woodpecker fledgling on a tree stump
Birdwatchers can see young Pileated Woodpeckers in their juvenile plumage from June until August each year. Unlike many other birds, the young of the species have the same coloration and patterning as mature birds. However, the smaller red crests are a good marker for identifying young birds.
The Pileated Woodpecker nesting period lasts many months, starting with three to five eggs laid in May or June. Once hatched, the adults care for their young for many months after fledging the nest.
The parents will remain near the nest when the juveniles are still learning to fly, but as their flight feathers grow and the young become more capable, they will begin to follow their parents for longer distances.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers stay with their parents for two to three months after fledging the nest. They leave their parents’ territory in the fall to seek out an unoccupied space of their own and a breeding partner.
Young Pileated Woodpecker looking out of the nesting cavity
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers may appear similar to their parents, but observing them during their first month or two after fledging the nest will reveal some tell-tale signs. Look out for the following behaviors from June to August each year.
Young Pileated Woodpeckers are vocal when begging for a meal. This behavior starts in the nest when the chicks learn to produce a rasping call each time their parent returns to feed them.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers make frequent soft contact calls to stay in touch with their parents and produce a clucking call while being fed. They begin to make adult calls within a month or two of fledging.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers fledge the nest before their feathers develop fully, and it may take several days for the young birds to learn the skill of sustained flight. Look out for these clumsy youngsters in the summer.
Pileated Woodpeckers roost in cavities that they excavate in trees. Juveniles can take over a month to perfect this behavior and start out by sleeping in sheltered areas on large living trees. In some cases, they start by roosting together with a parent.
Young female juvenile Pileated Woodpecker foraging for grubs and insects in the woodland
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers remain with their parents for several months after fledging the nest, but once they are all grown up, they will leave and not return. The young birds are not tolerated in their parents' territory after reaching independence and claiming their own space.
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