For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Feb. 1, 1989

One of the most yearned-for species of our winter bird count is the subject of a poem by a 9-year-old listener. (3:14)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

The Northland seems to be in the middle of a minor population boom for Pileated Woodpeckers. These enormous woodpeckers with their jaunty red crest are unmistakeable. They are also one of the rare birds that you can never see too much of. Last summer when I was up near Ely teaching an Elderhostel, I spent one entire afternoon watching a father Pileated and his daughter. Whether they were actively chiseling out tree bark, hammering a hollow log, yelling out the pileated cheer, preening, or just plain loafing, they managed to hold me spellbound for longer than any other bird has the power to do.

A few listeners have managed to get Pileateds on their list for our For the Birds winter contest. People are keeping track of all the species seen in or from their yards between January first and the last day of February, but even without a contest, the Pileated’s intense life energy glows in the cold dead of a Northland winter.

These birds only rarely come to suet feeders and seldom bang on clapboards or gutters—their wild disdain for all things human mysteriously adds to their allure. They do spend a lot of time and effort sabotaging telephone poles and power lines, perhaps recognizing instinctively the Achilles’ heel of our technological society. But like Sisyphus, their endless quest to destroy modern society are all for naught—as quickly as they can dig out a promising hole in a telecommunications pole someone repairs it, even as human development and chemical destruction steadily and inexorably destroy Pileated homes and lives. Their distrust of us is too deep for them to ever make peace with us and eat at our suet tables–they’ve seen how honorably we keep our treaties with our own species.

People who spend time in the southeast see Pileateds more than we. Not only are the birds more abundant in the insect-rich southland, but the ones down there have resigned themselves to the teeming presence of humans. It was no Northland pileated that inspired Woody Woodpecker–our birds are exuberant, irreverent, and vociferous, but they are also dignified and elegant–no cartoon caricature.

Nine year old Donica Christiansen of Washburn, Wisconsin, wrote a poem about the Pileated that pretty much says it all. She wrote:

Shiny black feathers cover your breast,
And you give birds a place to rest.
The bright feathers on your head
Are quite a pretty shade of red.
And when you fly that streak of white
Shows up brightly in the light.
You feed your youngsters in a nest
That is quite different from the rest.
You are so beautiful in flight.
I see you flapping out of sight.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker).

That was Nica Christiansen, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”