For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker (reworked from 1987)

Original Air Date: Feb. 15, 1988

Laura talks about a bird that almost everyone likes.

Duration: 3′44″


Most birds have at least a few human detractors. The Blue Jay, the finest bird of all–at least in my opinion–is about as controversial as a bird can get. Most people either love it or hate it–there’s no in between feelings about a jay. Crows have some human admirers, but probably a lot more people hate crows than like them. Robins and warblers are pretty popular, but many people don’t pay much attention to them. Eagles, hawks, and falcons grow more popular every year, but shooting is still the number one cause of mortality in birds of prey throughout the country. Bluebirds and chickadees couldn’t conjure up bad feelings in anyone, but I have heard more than one man cover up any affection he might have felt for them by nicknaming them “Merlin food”–merlins are bird-eating falcons.

No, I can think of only one bird that arouses awe and affection in everyone who sees it–the Pileated Woodpecker.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

The Pileated, the model for Woody Woodpecker, is huge–as big as a crow, with 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 brimless skullcap worn by ancient Romans.

The only thing at all controversial about a Pileated Woodpecker is its name. People who live in urban areas where the bird isn’t found have to read about it in books before they ever experience one in real life–they tend to pronounce its name “Pileated.” But people who live in more rural areas, where they’re more likely to see the actual birds and hear people talking about them before they ever see the name in print tend to say it “pilleated.” Webster’s New World Dictionary, a liberal lexicon, equivocates–they give pie-le-a- ted first, but also list pi-le-a-ted as an acceptable pronunciation. The American Heritage Dictionary, which is more prescriptive, gives pie-le-a-ted as the only correct pronunciation, as does John Terres in his Encyclopedia of North American Birds. I’ve always called it Pileated, but that’s because I’m a city girl from Chicago. To reinforce my pronunciation, the first time I ever heard the name said aloud was on my Peterson bird record:

(Recording old Peterson “Pileated Woodpecker”)

If I had started birding a few years later, after the second edition of that record came out, I’d probably say it:

(Recording–2nd edition)

Fortunately, last year a survey established once and for all that the birds themselves have absolutely no preference.

Pileated Woodpeckers are understandably 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 their meat is tough and bitter. The bad taste comes from the bird’s diet–most of its food is bitter-tasting carpenter ants. Colonies of these ants penetrate upward from the base of a tree, slowly killing it. Pileateds find contaminated trees and chop to the heart of each colony. In winter the birds eat so many ants that stricken trees often actually recover.

The pileated is often called the logcock, and most people associate it with wilderness forests. But up here people often see pileateds right in residential neighborhoods–especially this year. Eight were tallied on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, and I’m still hearing about sightings right in listeners’ backyards. No matter how you say it, seeing a Pileated Woodpecker is a delightful experience for everyone.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

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