Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.

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