Nature News Pileated woodpecker: a powerful bird

published Dec 8 2020 in the Portsmouth Herald/York Weekly and other print seacoast newspapers as well as at seacoastonline.com

Pileated woodpeckers are an iconic woodpecker, Woody the Woodpecker made flesh; they are crow-sized with striking black and white markings, both male and female bear a flashy red crest. Large and brash, they swoop through the forest uttering primeval jungle-bird calls, somewhat incongruous to hear in the winter.

We’ve just recently had a pileated woodpecker tear apart a rotten tree, it literally ripped so much out of it about 4 feet off the ground that the tree fell over (this can evidently be an issue when pileated woodpeckers excavate nest holes in telephone poles).

Now it is attacking what I thought was a healthy, giant, old hemlock that must not be as healthy as it looks because this woodpecker is undoubtedly drawn to the sounds of carpenter ants or some other insect pest eating the tree from within. Pileated woodpeckers are often blamed for killing trees, but while they may hasten death all evidence indicates that they only do significant damage to trees that are already infested and on their way out. 

Woody the Woodpecker The name “pileated” comes from the Latin for “capped,” referring to their bright red cap.  I had always thought that pileated woodpeckers were the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, however, according to the American Bird Conservancy, it is more complicated; “It turns out that the popular mid-20th century cartoon character Woody Woodpecker was actually inspired by a persistent acorn woodpecker that staged a cameo during animator Walter Lantz’s honeymoon, calling and drumming at the couple’s cabin. Lantz’s wife Gracie suggested that Walter make a cartoon character of the bird — and so Woody was created. But credit is due to to the Pileated Woodpecker as well: Woody’s shaggy red top-knot much more closely resembles a Pileated Woodpecker, and the cartoon character’s characteristic laugh, originally voiced by Mel Blanc of Warner Brothers fame, sounds more like a Pileated Woodpecker’s call as well.”

In addition to their large size and brilliant red crests, another noticeable feature of pileated woodpeckers is their extra long neck. These long necks give the woodpecker more force than a shorter neck, necessary for ripping deep holes in trees, which they accomplish by wedging their long, stiff, tail against the tree trunk while they hammer away with their heavy, sharp beaks.  

These are elusive birds-signs are more often seen than the bird themselves I find it so thrilling to see pileated woodpeckers in the wild, but these are elusive birds that I rarely see. This year I’ve glimpsed just one flying off through my woods – its size and characteristic slow, undulating flight a dead give-away. The only sign that it was in my neighborhood, the excavated tree.

Next time you go for a walk in the woods, look for the big rectangular holes and wood chips beneath. Years ago, while on a tracking walk with Dan Gardoqui of Lead with Nature (leadwithnature.com), I learned that one fun thing to look for in the wood chips at the base of the trees is pileated woodpecker scat. A quick look through their scat makes it pretty obvious what their primary food is – carpenter ants. We found some nice samples of pileated scat on that walk, chock-full of big, shiny, black carpenter ant heads, thoraxes and abdomens (I still have a vial with the remains). Dan is really good at finding things in nature – sit in the woods somewhere and he’ll find a single strand of deer or fox or coyote hair, likewise, on this walk there was pileated woodpecker scat galore in that pile of wood chips. I, personally, have never found any since … but I’ve never given up trying, it makes looking through every pile of wood chips from a pileated woodpecker’s excavations an adventure.