For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker and Welcome, KAXE

Original Air Date: Feb. 25, 1987

Today For the Birds is heard on a new station: KAXE in Grand Rapids.

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Grand Rapids

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

Today “For the Birds” welcomes a new group of listeners–we are now airing in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, on station KAXE. Grand Rapids is on the Mississippi River, and is near several lakes. Itasca County is an area rich in birds–251 species have been recorded there by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, and two birders–Tim Lamey and Ken LaFond, have each seen over 200 species in the county. Itasca County has only a single page of coverage in Kim Eckert’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, and Grand Rapids itself isn’t even found in the index, simply because most of the well-known birders in the state haven’t spent much time there. We’ll be interested in learning more about its bird life from our new listeners. The one thing I do know is that on the 1985 Christmas Bird Count, Grand Rapids out-Pileated Woodpeckered Duluth 6 to 1, even though Grand Rapids had only a third as many counters.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

There are few birds more impressive than the Pileated Woodpecker– it’s bigger than a crow, its thick, ossified skull is as strong as concrete, it’s drumming more powerful than a locomotive, and it’s able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. As far as I know, it didn’t inspire the original superman, but it is the bird that inspired Walter Lantz to create Woody Woodpecker in 1941.

The Pileated Woodpecker is easy to identify–it’s mostly black with a bright red crest. Its indulating flight is distinctive, and in the air it shows lots of white, especially under the wings. But most Pileateds are very shy, and so are frustratingly difficult to see, even in places where Pileated sign is everywhere. They dig huge holes in trees infested with carpenter ants, spruce budworm, or wood-boring beetles. The holes are often rectangular, as much as eight inches deep, and can be at any height from ground level up. In a few places, Pileated Woodpeckers have become adapted to people–some even nest within sight of Manhattan. But the ones I’ve seen in the Northland have all been shy, reclusive sorts. My neighbor has seen them twice from her yard in Lakeside, but both times they vanished before I could get a glimpse. The luckiest people in the world may be the ones who get Pileated Woodpeckers at their feeders.

Pileated Woodpeckers take their name from a “pileus,” a round, felt skullcap worn by ancient Romans and Greeks. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a strictly prescriptive lexicon, the only acceptable pronunciation is “pileated.” But the more permissive Webster’s New World Dictionary gives both “Pileated” and “Pileated” as acceptable pronunciations. I used to think the Peterson field guide bird records were the final arbiters on the dispute. On the first edition of the eastern guide we hear:

(“Pileated Woodpecker”)

But the second edition calls them this:

(“Pileated Woodpecker”)

In a recent poll, it was discovered that the birds themselves have absolutely no preference.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

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