When a Woodpecker Male Dies Leaving 2 Chicks in the Nest... Should Humans Help?

What do you do if you see a family in distress? Granted, it is a family of birds in your backyard, should you intervine? do you know how? should you leave them alone?


A few weeks ago, we heard a woodpecker drilling a hole in one of the trees in our backyard, right outside our home office. We followed his progress along the way, taking pictures of him and his female companion. A few weeks ago, after many days hearing them chirp,  we got to met the rest of the family; an identical copy of them, a male and a female chick started to come up and show themselves via the small hole of the nest.

This is our fist time seen woodpeckers in our yard. Via the photographs, we learned that this type of bird is a Nuttall's Woodpecker. These, along with all woodpeckers in California are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The male has a red crown and the female has no markings at all, both birds have black and white markings and they feed primarily on insects like spiders, worms, centipedes, scorpions and other arthropods. (See a picture of the female chick having this type of dinner brought in by her parents.)

One morning two days ago, I found the male on the grass barely alive. I picked him up to protect him from our outdoor cat, I brought him inside and tried to feed him water. I do not know what happened to him, but the day before I did hear a commotion on the trees and saw the couple of woodpeckers chasing a blue jay, I have the feeling our hardworking woodpecker got injured while defending his nest.

Our bird did not survived.We were concerned about the chicks in the nest, could the female alone feed those two chicks? could we help in any way? I did put a ladder against the tree and thought about digging up some worms of the yard and bringing them up to the nest. Alexia and I discussed this idea but decided to allow nature to take its turn. One thing we did not want to do, was to feed them something they were not prepared to eat and actually... kill them!

On Memorial day, as we worked on the yard, we were at one point looking at the tree admiring the female chick and wondering how she will survive, to our surprise she took off on her first fly! We were very happy to have witnessed this important step, the small male took over the nest opening and we were anxious to see him fly too. It did not happen, but a few hours later we saw the female chick... back in the nest! how did this happened?

The Female keep feeding them both faithfully, we knew the family will be O. K. without our intervention. I guess we all have this urge to reach out and help thinking that we know what to do... not in nature, I read the warnings from wildlife officials about not picking up small birds, even if we think they need our help. The best we can and should to is to allow the parents to take care of their own... but they cannot take care of them untill we leave their chicks alone.

Two days after the first fly of the female chick, the nest is empty and quiet. I guess the male finally got the courage to fly off the nest, and all 3 are out there flying together, my human feelings tell me, the father should have been there too. Now we miss their daily chirping and the activity around the tree. We followed this family from the very beginning, their tragedy, and the first fly out of the first bird. 

The death of the male bird, it appears, did not affect the success of his family. We have posted here some of their pictures and videos, we hope to see them again... maybe next year!

I am just glad we do not live on Walnut Creek's Rossmore, this upscale community has an ongoing war with Acorn woodpeckers, to the point that they have a permit to hire a sharpshooter to kill the birds. They have spent over $200,000 in repairs to their gutters and roofs over the last 10 years.

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Michael Moore June 03, 2012 at 01:01 AM
Antonio, you certainly did all of the right things in not intervening. Based on the pictures around your home, you might want to consider both an arborist and removing some of the vegetation. Your home appears to be at risk from fire, falling trees and limbs. If you have wooden eaves and any exposed headers, they may be at risk too from woodpeckers who are very colonial.
Antonio Cardenas June 03, 2012 at 03:34 PM
You are right Michael, that tree is already scheduled to be removed within the next few weeks, unfortunately it is too old does have a broken limb.
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