The pileated woodpecker: A gifted carpenter

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Pileated woodpecker
Males can be identified by a red line on the cheek which extends from the bill to the throat. This line is black in the females. (Tami Gingrich photo)

In October of 2023, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared 21 new species extinct. These animals had previously been on the national list of threatened and endangered species. They include birds, bats, fish and mussels and join an ever-growing list of 650 species that have likely been lost to extinction.

One species glaringly absent from this recent declaration is the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Since the last official sighting in 1944, scientists have continued to actively search for the bird in several regions from Arkansas to Louisiana. In some of the most remote, inaccessible areas of Arkansas’ Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a handful of compelling images have been recently released, causing scientific disagreement and delaying the long-awaited decision to declare this woodpecker extinct.

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker
The pileated woodpecker is a striking specimen the size of an American crow. It has a long neck sporting bold, white stripes and a triangular, flaming-red crest that trails off the back of its head. (Tami Gingrich photo)

The ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America, and although it remains to be seen whether it still exists, there is another woodpecker species waiting in the wings to take its place as this continent’s largest: the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Unlike the ivory-billed, whose numbers have decreased to the point of near extinction, the North American Breeding Bird Survey has documented a steady increase in the pileated woodpecker population across Canada and the eastern U.S. from 1966 to 2019. Its adaptability to many wooded habitat types has allowed it to thrive in the face of human habitation and it is protected by The Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The pileated woodpecker is a striking specimen the size of an American crow. It has a long neck sporting bold, white stripes and a triangular, flaming-red crest that trails off the back of its head. Males can be identified by a red line on the cheek which extends from the bill to the throat. This line is black in the females. Its long, powerful beak is easily the length of its head. Finally, their typical undulating woodpecker flight reveals white on the wings.

Although pileateds are very adaptable, they prefer mature, heavily wooded forests with a generous supply of dead trees, both standing and downed. Expired, hollow trees are important for drumming, nesting and especially providing food. Carpenter ants make up roughly 60% of a pileated woodpecker’s diet. They also relish termites and emerald ash borer larvae. In addition, they enjoy dining on fruits, nuts and berries, including those of poison ivy. Visits to bird feeding stations to feast on suet and peanuts are always a breathtaking sight.

As the leaves exit the trees, one of this woodpecker’s tell-tale signs becomes more noticeable. Using their powerful beaks like chisels, the birds carve out impressive rectangular-shaped holes in dead wood to get at insects with their long tongues. Large piles of wood chips, many inches in length characteristically cover the ground beneath these excavations. Pileateds can also be observed foraging on the ground, ripping apart rotted logs. A closer look inside these cavities often reveals carpenter ant galleries. These roomy feeding holes should not be mistaken for nesting holes, however, which are normally located 15 to 80 feet high and are not excavated until spring.

Carpenter ant galleries in rectangular feeding hole
Using their powerful beaks like chisels, the birds carve out impressive rectangular-shaped holes in dead wood to get at insects with their long tongues. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Spring courting

Pileated woodpeckers are non-migratory, and a pair will remain on their territory year-round, defending it from intruders. As spring approaches, the male selects a hollow tree that will resonate sound effectively and begins drumming to proclaim his territory and court his mate. Commencing slowly with a slow, deep, rolling pattern, the drumming begins to accelerate before trailing off at the finish. Impressively, the birds can drum almost 17 beats per second. The woodpeckers are extremely vocal as well. When I hear a pileated’s unmistakable call, a loud, tropical-like cackle echoing among the forest, I always imagine that I am in a jungle. Loud, rapid cuk-cuk-cuk calls can also be heard as the bird navigates its way among the trees and arrives at a landing spot.

Once a location has been chosen, both the male and female take turns excavating the nesting cavity. They also share in the incubation duties of the three to five white eggs which hatch in 18 days. The dutiful parents feed their nestlings by regurgitation and the young leave the nest around 28 days after hatching. Once they fledge, they do not return to the nest hole but remain with their parents, learning how to fend for themselves for two to three months. Since pileated woodpeckers never use the same nesting hole twice, it is freed up for other animals which will use it for their own nesting or overwintering chambers.

One of my pet peeves used to revolve around the pronunciation of this bird’s name. PIE-lee-ay-tid or PILL-ee-ay-tid? Having had an interest in birds from a very young age, I grew up using the first option. Although this version is technically the correct one, the latter has become widely used and is commonly accepted.

Perhaps this article has stirred up some latent memories and recollections of a cartoon character that was created by cartoonist Walter Lantz in 1940. The story is told that during Walter’s honeymoon with his wife, Grace, in a California cabin, they were disturbed by a busy woodpecker, noisily boring holes in their cabin walls in search of insects. As heavy rain moved in, they realized with frustration that the bird had made holes in the roof. Threatening to shoot it, his wife suggested that Walter create a cartoon personality representing the bird instead. Thus, the character of Woody Woodpecker was born. When scrutinizing this cartoon, one can spot many of the characteristics shared by the pileated woodpecker, and whether or not Walter would have wanted to admit it, the bird’s superb carpentry skills were, well, unforgettable.

Although pileateds are very adaptable, they prefer mature, heavily wooded forests with a generous supply of dead trees, both standing and downed. (Tami Gingirch trail camera photo)

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Only the human species acts against nature. E.g., clearcutting old growth forests robbing wildlife of dependence on old growth trees for food & shelter. By driving one species to the point of extinction, we in turn create a chain reaction of driving another species toward extinction. E.g. a species who depended on a symbiotic relationship w/ the Ivory-billed woodpecker, utilizing the woodpecker’s deserted tree cavities in turn for their own nesting shelter. In nature’s web of biological life, all life depends on other life. We’ll finally have to accept our turn, when we’ve shredded the biological web beyond repair, dummies that we are, who cant ‘manage’ our own species to keep from over-breeding & pushing all others to extinction.

  2. I live in Iowa about 16 miles southwest of Charles City. This morning around 9 AM I had a pileated woodpecker visit one of my feeders. It didn’t stay long enough for me to get a picture. This is the first time I have seen one. It is such a large and beautiful bird. Our home in the country is surrounded by large old oaks and various varieties of pine trees. I am hoping it will return so I can take its picture.

  3. I got a photo of a pleated woodpecker at my home in Ashe County, NC on May 15. Largest woodpecker I’ve ever seen.

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