For the Birds Radio Program: New Year 2004: Pileated Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Jan. 6, 2004

Laura saw several wonderful birds on New Years Day, including a Pileated Woodpecker! (Date Confirmed)

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Pileated Woodpecker

On New Year’s Day, many birders start up a brand new list of birds seen that year. I started this year with a couple of flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Downy Woodpecker, and plenty of neighborhood crows—the most regular birds coming to my yard lately. And in the afternoon on January 1, I glanced out the window to see a Pileated Woodpecker tapping away in my maple tree. Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the few birds I can identify easily even without wearing my eyeglasses, but they’re cool enough that I ran and got both my glasses and binoculars to enjoy the sight better.

Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the true glamour birds—they can make almost anyone, even a non-birder, take notice. They’re huge—as big as crows—and sport a characteristic red crest that gives them their name. A pileus was a brimless cap with a peak worn by ancient Romans. When they fly, their pterodactyl-like shape and white wing linings are also distinctive.

Pileated Woodpeckers are known for their loud, powerful hammering—they’re the John Henrys of the bird world. They have no trouble chiseling out huge feeding holes in rotten trees and excavating nesting and sleeping cavities in live trees. In captivity, they easily peck huge holes into hardware cloth and even metal lathing. They can hear carpenter ants or wood boring beetles deep in heartwood, and can hammer their way into hardwood a good two-and-a-half or three inches deep. If bugs are in deeper than that, the woodpecker hacks out a hole as wide as its body and several inches longer, and then digs in deeper from there. Once it finally exposes a soft beetle larva, the woodpecker sticks out its tongue, which can extend three and a half inches beyond the tip of its beak, and impales the grub with the spear-like tongue tip. Carpenter ants have the wrong shape and texture for spearing—a Pileated woodpecker holds them on the tongue with its sticky saliva. Pileateds not only stick their tongue out, they can also move the tongue about in a very snake-like manner. When I was a bird rehabber, I once raised a baby Pileated. Gepetto liked clinging to my arm and sticking his tongue into my ear—he’d gently run it around all the folds and crevices, seemingly out of curiosity, not hunger. Of course, it helped to wear a sturdy shirt with long sleeves, because his toes were very strong with sharp claws. Pileated Woodpeckers hang on so tenaciously that early American ornithologists noted that when shot while clinging to a tree, Pileateds didn’t fall for a long time until their muscles relaxed. Unlike most birds, which have three front toes and one back toe, Pileateds have two front toes and two back toes, and very stiff tail feathers, so they can brace themselves better in a vertical position. But they also eat fruits and some buds, so occasionally perch in improbably tiny outer twigs.

The pair of Pileateds that hang out in my neighborhood feed in a few of my trees, and have excavated several holes that they ended up not using. I’ve seen both the male and the female alight, once each, in my window suet feeders. Those feeders are apparently too small and close to the house for the birds to use regularly. A few lucky northlanders have a Pileated visit their suet feeders regularly. These magnificent birds seem like they belong in true wilderness, but even though genuinely wild areas are disappearing, Pileateds seem to be thriving, especially in old neighborhoods like mine where there is a good variety of trees and many old trees are infested with insects. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one and been able to ignore it, or to move on to seeing the next bird. One afternoon I sat for over two hours watching an adult male and his fledgling daughter, and I was mesmerized by them the entire time. The world would be a duller, sadder place without them, and this year promises to be a little better just for starting it out with one.