Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rites Of Spring

Two chicken-sized birds appeared on a tree behind the house this morning and sent the dogs into a frenzy of barking. They were clinging upright to the trunk of a nondescript tree (all trees are nondescript these days, without their leaves), going round and round by making little sideways hops, but always keeping the trunk between them.

They had long beaks and black-and-white plumage, and bright red caps shaped like those silly pointed bikers' helmets. They kept on opposite sides of the trunk, so it was hard to compare them, but one did perhaps have a tad more white on the wing than the other. So, according to the bird book, that one--the one with a bit more white--was a female.

In which case, the coyly peeking and chasing around the tree trunk was a prelude to mating. Or, if they were two males, they were establishing territory, as a prelude to ditto. It's also possible that they were two females, but if so, the books are silent on the reasons for their behavior.

In any case, in between shushing the crazed dogs and adjusting my dusty binoculars, I did establish that the two birds were Pileated Woodpeckers, the largest woodpecker species in North America if you don't count the mythical Ivory Billed W.

I looked up that weird word, "pileated." It comes from "pileus," a felt cap worn by Roman soldiers. But wait. Didn't Roman soldiers wear plumed helmets, and those little leather skirts? Perhaps that was their summer outfit, and they reserved the felt caps for the colder seasons. If so, what was the rest of their plumage like?

10 comments :

  1. You watched too much Hollywood. Hollywood had them wear what they thought looked Roman. Maybe those pileated woodpeakers are Roman soldiers reincarnated in your woods? Late snows bring strange guests(none from TN, though).

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  2. Reincarnated centurions, you might be right!

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  3. That famous day I walked to your house, I saw a pair feeding on sumac (perhaps the same pair, who know?). The way you tell the male (if you can get that close) is the red on his face.

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  4. I didn't know these guys ate sumac. It had to be the same pair--surely there aren't that many of these around?

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  5. The first time I saw a pileated I was shocked by how huge it was. The book did not do it justice with its bland 16-20". The things are huge.

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  6. I always wondered what pileated meant. Thank you for researching it for me.

    We used to have a pair nesting in a dead tree across the street but the county took down the tree a few years ago and the pair moved elsewhere.

    Someone once corrected me on the pronunciation of "pileated" so I started saying it their way until someone else corrected me and said I was saying it wrong. Now when I mention the name I say "pie-lee-ated/pill-lee-ated" so as to not be corrected again.

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  7. Maybe your pair moved up here. After all, if a humming bird can fly to Mexico....

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  8. At least one had red on its face. Couldn't see the other's before it left.

    Dona, FYI--Webster gives pie... as the first pronunciation, pill... as the second.

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  9. In the Wekiva Springs State Park area of Central Florida, we have a small pocket of pileated giants. Not knowing the borders of the park, the woodpeckers sometime venture into my park-side property to amaze us with their size and sounds. Here's their song: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds

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  10. Yes! We hear that call all the time! Now I'll know who's making it. Thanks, Marty.

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