Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 6, 2023

First Pileated of 2023

Pileated Woodpecker

Every December, I start wondering what bird I will see first on New Year’s Day. I started out January 1, 2023, at 6:45 am, while it was still dark, meeting my friend Janet Riegle to drive to the Sax-Zim Bog. When I picked her up, Janet had already heard her first bird of the year, a splendid Great Horned Owl, but it wasn’t calling when I got there.

As I sort of expected, knowing where we’d be at first light, my own first bird was a Common Raven, seen along Highway 7 north of 133 in the bog. Janet got a decent look at a Canada Jay a little further down the road, from the passenger window side, too high for me to position myself to see it from the driver’s seat. We got plenty of good looks later, but meanwhile we soon saw my second bird of the year—Snow Buntings sitting and walking along the railroad track.

Snow Bunting
Not this year's bird, but this old photo is WAY better than the one I got on January 1!

In most years, I’d be waxing euphoric about how wonderful my first two bird species were—a study in opposites—black and white, big and small—and a study in similarities, for both species are exceptionally hardy. I’d suggest that my first ravens, considered by people to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and Snow Buntings, resourceful and adaptable, foretold that in 2023, I’ll be well equipped if I find myself in situations calling for intelligence or resourcefulness. We superstitious humans can’t help but imagine that ravens, Snow Buntings, and other birds are mystical links between heaven and earth, when the truth is they’re flesh-and-blood, mortal creatures eking out their existences as well as they can, the same as we. But even as I know that, it’s fun to play prediction games, and probably no less accurate than a Magic 8 ball or Ouija board.

But unlike most years, this past December, I didn’t think much about what my first bird would be. Instead, I found myself wondering who my first Pileated Woodpecker of 2023 would be. This is the first year in my life that I have four different, identifiable Pileated Woodpeckers visiting my yard.

First and foremost is BB—my beloved “Banded Boy.” He visits most days to feed from my big suet feeders. He almost always flies in from the box elder next to my driveway, often calling first. And he is the least skittish Pileated I’ve ever known. He doesn’t seem to mind when people walking dogs or talking loudly on their cell phones pass by right along the edge of the fence which is just 8 or 10 feet from the feeder. And he stays put when I crank open the window to take pictures.

Pileated Woodpecker

There’s also SheB—the female bird who sometimes comes to the yard with BB, and sometimes on her own. For a while I was calling her Mrs. B, but then I realized she may well not want to make a commitment, and even if she is BB’s mate, her name should reflect herself, not her relationship to him.

Pileated Woodpecker

An unbanded male occasionally visits. Even before I get a good look at his right leg, I I recognize him by his behavior, because he doesn’t seem to have a clue how to sit on a suet feeder. When he comes to the side yard, with the suet feeders dangling from pipes, he sits on a horizontal pipe and leans down to take bits of suet from the top of the feeder. At the feeders in the back yard, with the suet feeders on either side of a small platform feeder, he sits in the platform to eat the suet.

Male Pileated Woodpecker

A second female visits, too. Her forehead is a warm brown, not like SheB’s colder dark gray, so I call her Brownie.

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

I was gone all day on January 1, and family matters distracted me from the window most of January 2. But January 3, right at first light when I was at my desk, I heard a Pileated yell that I thought had to be BB, coming from his favorite boxelder, and in that first moment as he was calling, I looked down at the feeder to see SheB. I verified that BB was the bird yelling, and so my “First Pileated of 2023” turned out to be an amazing two-fer! This may or may not be a sign that I’ll have wonderful luck this entire calendar year, but it sure was an astonishing bit of luck at that moment–a moment I’ll remember long after 2023 is over.

Male Pileated Woodpecker