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Nature Notes: Pileated Woodpecker

Ed Robinson
April 5, 2021
Photo by James Pearsell, iStock

Many birds overlap in the subtleties of their coloration and it requires careful observation for accurate identification. That is not the case with this powerful woodpecker; having seen one, the image will be locked in your mind. Memory does not serve me well regarding the timing of my first encounter with this dramatic bird, but I can still picture the wood chips flying in all directions. If the Lumberjack World Championships ever host an event that involves reducing a standing dead tree to a pile of chips, the pileated woodpecker would win in a heartbeat.

It will not surprise you that the scientific name for this bird, Dryocopus pileatus, derives from the Latin word for cap. The crown of a bird’s head is known as the pileum and the pileated woodpecker sports a jaunty fire-engine-red cap on his. There is some debate as to the pronunciation of the English name, with those of us “refined” enough to study Latin inclined to say “PILL lee ay ted” while those who were smart enough to study modern Romance languages lean toward “PIE lee ay ted.” Fortunately, birders are not the kind of folks to settle such disputes with violence! Leave it to the French to find an eloquent solution, using the term “le Grand pic.”

That long, heavy bill with a chisel-like tip is the business end of this bird, now the largest woodpecker in the US thanks to the almost certain extinction of the larger ivory-billed woodpecker, with no confirmed sightings since 1944. Watching a pileated dig into a dead or dying tree loaded with tasty insects might have made me inclined to name her “the excavator.” The birds do not settle for making just a couple holes, instead they bang out big elliptical sections of the tree, following the evidence of insect infestation wherever it leads. On smaller trees the woodpeckers sometimes remove enough wood so that the remaining trunk will snap and fall to the ground. That is fine with the pileated since they are comfortable going to the ground to scarf up insects with their long tongues until full. A wide range of insects are consumed, with carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae particular favorites. The woodpeckers will also eat fruit, berries, nuts and suet if they can access it.

This is a striking bird in a prehistoric way, reminiscent of a pterodactyl. At nearly 20 inches long and weighing just under one pound, they are roughly the size of the American crow. The male, slightly larger than his mate, has a red crown covering his head from the base of the bill through the crest (hers is shorter). He displays a one-inch red stripe below the eye that extends back from the eye like a Fu Manchu mustache. There are two white stripes on the head, a tiny one above the eye and a larger one below that runs down each side of the neck. The body and wings appear mostly black at rest but in flight you can see white shoulders and the leading half of the wings below are white. The pileated makes a low-pitched drumming noise, often made on a hollow tree to amplify the sound. It starts low in volume and ascends in both speed and volume, used primarily for territory defense. The call is a loud series, “cuk cuk cuk…” that may be repeated up to 30 times per second.

The male creates a new tree cavity with multiple entrances each year for nesting. Both sexes have been observed incubating a clutch of three to five eggs for about two weeks. Within a month the young birds have fledged, if they survive predation by martens, weasels, squirrels, snakes and gray foxes (yes, the gray fox climbs trees). Juveniles out of the nest and adults are fair game for a wide range of raptors including owls, eagles and the larger hawks. The pileated is not prone to migration, staying close to its breeding territory throughout the year.

The pileated woodpecker has an extensive range across the deciduous and mixed forests of Canada and the northern US. Given its habits, you would not expect to find the bird in desert or arid regions with few large trees, and the conversion of most of our midwestern states to vast fields of grain has limited the bird in that region. The bird is adaptable, able to cope with living in wilderness areas or much closer to human development as long as it has access to mature hardwood trees that are dead or declining with resultant insect infestations. Pileated woodpeckers are dependent on these large trees not only for food but also for the self-created holes used for roosting and nesting.

Those holes are the reason that Cornell’s Bird of the World refers to the pileated woodpecker as a keystone species. The bird plays a crucial role in the forest ecosystem since its abandoned holes are vital habitat for many other creatures including chipmunks, American martens, and cavity nesters like the wood duck and several owl species. By creating openings in a live but declining tree, the woodpecker creates an opportunity for insects that accelerate the death of the tree. By breaking down standing dead snags, the pileated serves to speed the decomposition and recycling of nutrients. Along the way, they serve as a brake on beetle populations that might otherwise devastate forests.

The population of pileated woodpeckers suffered when vast areas of colonial-era America were converted from virgin forest to farms. Once the farms in areas with marginal soil were abandoned and reverted to forest, the pileated began to make a comeback. The birds have large territories, ranging from 50 to 500 acres per breeding pair, and it is difficult to measure their population. While regional forest cover in the eastern US dropped four percent between 1973 and 2000, forestry practices have changed for the better. Rather than clear-cut vast areas of timber with no trees left standing, logging companies today are required to protect dead snags and known denning trees, and they also spare some large trees to create multiple aged forests and to seed regeneration. The best indication of the bird’s status in Maine comes from citizen scientists, with the Birds of Maine reporting that Christmas Bird Counts showed significant gains for pileated woodpeckers since the 1970s.

As with some other wild creatures morphed by humans into starring roles in cartoons or movies, the pileated woodpecker had a long run between 1940 and 1972 as Woody Woodpecker. Who could forget that silly laugh? The inspiration for the character came when producer Walter Lantz was on his honeymoon in a remote cabin. A pileated woodpecker kept him awake one night banging a hole in the cabin. All must have been forgiven because Woody became so successful that he was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

So how does a woodpecker slam his bill into a tree repeatedly without suffering a concussion? According to LiveScience, the force at impact can reach 1,000 times that of gravity, or 20 times more than the force involved in a fatal auto accident. Scientists have determined that powerful neck muscles help to diffuse the power of the blow, and woodpeckers have a third inner eyelid that prevents the eyes from being dislodged. Further, the bill is extremely strong but structured to have just a bit of flex at impact. Finally, the skull of the woodpecker contains a thick layer of spongy bone around the brain that serves as a shock absorber.

Some folks disparage the pileated woodpecker for being ugly or they dislike the fact the birds can damage valuable hardwood trees before the end of their life span. Before the birds were protected by the Migratory Bird Act it was common to shoot them as pests or for food. But when you consider the value the pileated has in relationship to many other species that benefit from its excavations, what’s one more hole in my cabin?

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