Written by Eva Ries & Jacques Beumer of Florida
Our backyard had five Royal Palm trees until a hurricane killed one of them. Its trunk remained standing, becoming a “bird condo” offering perching space for ducks on top and nesting cavities for woodpeckers down below. This summer, a pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks hatched a brood of nine babies in one of the cavities they borrowed from the woodpeckers. A healthy, mature Royal Palm can rise as much as 80 feet (24 meters) into the air, and this one, even with its crown gone, was still nearly that height.
The Storm Arrives
In late September, a persistent weather system sitting over southern Florida brought unexpectedly strong winds and 10 inches of rain that soaked the ground. The palm trees in question line the riverbank, and the rain, rising river and strong wind all worked to weaken the dead trunk at its base until one day the inevitable happened. We heard a loud “pop” and saw the palm trunk fall down toward the river breaking off at the base.
As the trunk was falling, we saw one of the Pileated Woodpeckers push out from a nest cavity entrance and fly free. As the giant trunk began to slide down the gentle embankment into the river, we tried to guide the trunk alongside our dock so we could search the cavities for trapped birds. We searched as many of the cavities as we could, but some were facing downward into the water, so my husband and I tried to rotate the now floating trunk. My husband, with longer arms than I, plunged a hand into one hole after another on the trunk, searching the cavities that were facing downward into the water.
We got a very stunning surprise…
As we turned the trunk for the last time into a hole that was underwater just a moment ago, he felt feathers. The look of surprise and concern on his face told the entire story in a moment, and he gently lifted a Black-bellied Whistling Duck out of the cavity. She might have otherwise died in that nesting cavity, unable to push free as it rapidly filled up with water so that the trunk began to slightly submerge. Instead, he was able to pull her free and set her down on the trunk.
She sat on the trunk for a moment, looking bewildered and disheveled from her experience. Then she looked at my husband and me. Suddenly she lifted off and flew away to find her mate. We were privileged to see her off, safe and sound.
The Birds Kept Circling Their Lost Nesting Tree
In the days to follow, birds circled, frantically trying to land on a tree trunk that was no longer there. It was heartbreaking to see ducks and woodpeckers search desperately for their old perch and home. The pair of Pileated Woodpeckers had both made it out just fine, and they remained in our yard, half-heartedly trying to excavate a new nest in one of the other Royal Palms along the river’s edge.
We couldn’t bear to watch the sad scene playing out before us, and within two weeks, we’d laid plans to erect a replacement “bird condo,” as we’d affectionately called the old palm we lost. Purchasing three parrot nesting boxes of various sizes from a local pet supplier, we got lumber and bolts to brace the pole system. Then we poured concrete into the base of the old palm tree. With a little pleading for muscle from our lawn mowing service, those three fellows helped us erect the 200-pound pole system. Within a week, the resident woodpeckers were back, inspecting and claiming their new “apartments” (and enlarging the entrance holes!). While the ducks likely flew away for the season, we look forward to their return in the spring.
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