Tag Archives: Dryocopus pileatus

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.

Pileated Woodpecker has inspired various common names

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler A Pileated Woodpecker forages on a willow tree at the Elizabethton home of Tom and Helen Stetler.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler
A Pileated Woodpecker forages on a willow tree at the Elizabethton home of Tom and Helen Stetler.

I received an email recently from Tom and Helen Stetler. The Stetlers live in Elizabethton and often attend bird walks offered by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

“We have a Pileated Woodpecker working on our dead willow tree for the past two days,” Tom wrote in the email. “It has made a fairly large hole at the base of the tree. The diameter at the base is about eight inches. It looks like there are some bugs inside the tree, maybe some termites.”

He added an interesting tidbit of information about Pileated Woodpeckers.

“Our old-timey neighbor calls it a wood hen,” Tom wrote in the email.

The Pileated Woodpecker has actually had an abundance of common names associated with it.

English naturalist Mark Catesby, who died in 1749, gave this large bird the name of “Large Red-crested Woodpecker.” The Swedish botanist apparently gave the woodpecker the scientific name of Dryocopus pileatus.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Another English naturalist, John Latham, apparently gave the bird the common name of Pileated Woodpecker, basing the name on the scientific name established by Linnaeus.

Beyond this history of how the bird eventually got the name Pileated Woodpecker, there are a lot of folk names for this particular bird, including such interesting ones as “King of the Woods” and “Stump Breaker.”

The loud vocalization of this woodpecker has also inspired names such as Wood Hen as mentioned by Tom in his email. Other names along these lines include “Indian Hen” and “Laughing Woodpecker.”

If anyone knows of other common names for the Pileated Woodpecker, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Depending on whether you believe that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists somewhere in Cuba or Arkansas, the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest of North America’s woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpeckers are cavity-nesting birds, and they use their large, stout bills to efficiently excavate their own nesting cavities in dead or dying trees. These cavities can be used in later nesting seasons by such cavity-nesting birds, such as Eastern Screech-owls and Wood Ducks, that are incapable of excavating their own nesting cavities.

Male Pileated Woodpecker show a red whisker stripe on the side of the face that is absent in the female. Otherwise, they look similar.

These large woodpeckers — they can reach a length of about 19 inches — often forage close to the ground on old stumps or fallen logs.

The Pileated Woodpecker is widespread in the United States and Canada, favoring wooded areas in both countries. This woodpecker has proven adaptable, now thriving even in suburban areas offering sufficient woodland habitat.


Photo by Bryan Stevens A Northern Flicker calls from atop a utility pole.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Northern Flicker calls from atop a utility pole.

Pileated Woodpecker was among the 49 species of birds found during the third of the four Saturday Bird Walks being held in October. This walk took place on Oct. 18 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.

A total of 10 participants took part in the Saturday bird walk at Sycamore Shoals. A persistent wind made it feel cool, and we spent some of the walk enjoying sunshine that gradually gave way to overcast skies.

The walk yielded observations of 49 species of birds, including quite a few surprises.

A flock of 18 Great Egrets that flew over our heads, following the course of the Watauga River, was perhaps one of the more unanticipated moments.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An American Coot on the Watauga River.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An American Coot on the Watauga River.

I also enjoyed some seasonal firsts, including the first American Coot I have seen this fall. The Ring-billed Gull that soared repeatedly overhead was also a first autumn observation. Both coots and gulls spend the winter months at area lakes, rivers and, quite often, parking lots. The winter of 2013-2014 saw a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls spending its days in the parking lot at the Elizabethton Wal-Mart.

For this far into October, we also did fairly well with warblers, finding five species — Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped and Palm — during the walk along the park’s trails.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

In addition to Pileated Woodpecker, other woodpeckers found during the walk included Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Other species found included Canada Goose, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Killdeer, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-headed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, House Finch and American Goldfinch.

The last of the planned October Saturday bird walks will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Oct. 26. The public is welcome. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment.

For more information, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or call the park at 543-5808. Readers are welcome to follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Phoebe perches in a sapling.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Phoebe perches in a sapling.