For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Jan. 5, 1987

How do you say “Pileated”?

Duration: 3′35″


(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

The number of species tallied on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count continues to grow. Now it’s up to 55, counting a Song Sparrow that was seen on December 20th but not reported to the compiler until last week. That makes the gap between our total and Rochester’s 49 species even more impressive.

This year’s count produced several other records, too–including four Pileated Woodpeckers.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

The Pileated, the model for Woody Woodpecker, is huge–it’s as big as a crow, with big conspicuous white wing patches visible when it flies. The red crest, present in males, females, and immatures, makes it especially handsome and easy to identify. This crest is the source of the bird’s name–a pileus was a round, brimless skullcap worn by ancient Romans. The American Heritage Dictionary gives pie-le-a-ted as the only correct pronunciation, as does John Terres in his Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Webster’s New World Dictionary equivocates– they give pie-le-a-ted first, but also list pi-le-a-ted as an acceptable pronunciation. I’ve always called it Pileated–probably because I’ve internalized that old English class rule that when only one consonant separates vowels, the first vowel is supposed to be long–but most of the birders I know in Duluth call it “pilleated.” You can’t use bird records to settle the matter. On the western edition of Peterson’s field guide record, you hear:

(Recording) But on the newest eastern edition you hear:


A recent survey indicates that the birds themselves have absolutely no preference.

Pileated Woodpeckers are very shy around people. They were heavily shot in the 18th and 19th centuries and commonly offered for sale in city markets, in spite of the fact that John James Audubon, a dedicated gourmand of all things avian, labeled their meat tough and “extremely unpalatable.” The bad taste comes from this woodpecker’s own diet– although it eats berries occasionally and some wood-boring beetles and other insects, most of its food is bitter-tasting carpenter ants. Colonies of these ants penetrate upward from the base of a tree, and, in time, can kill the tree. Pileateds unerringly find contaminated trees and chop to the heart of each colony. In winter the birds eat so extensively on these ants that stricken trees often actually recover.

The pileated is often called the logcock, and most people associate it with wilderness forests. But people often see this bird right in residential neighborhoods here in Duluth. My neighbor has seen two at different times right from her living room window in Lakeside–both times I missed them, so I still need a pileated for my yard list. But at least one Duluthian has one eating regularly at a suet feeder. Seven Bridges Road, in Lester Park, is one of the best places I know to look for them.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”