For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Jan. 8, 1997

In the 1700s, a minister named John Bachman birdnapped five baby Pileated Woodpeckers. Laura hopes he was kinder to his parishioners. (4:22)

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One of the jauntiest of all birds is the Pileated Woodpecker. This enormous wood borer–fully the size of a crow–is a fairly common but secretive year round resident, living in woods with mature and even rotting trees to support the carpenter ants and wood boring beetles that make up most of its diet. But Pileated Woodpeckers, being fairly adaptable, eat more than just bugs, taking large quantities of berries, acorns, and nuts as well. John James Audubon wrote, “Its flesh is tough, of a bluish tint, and smells so strongly of the worms and insects on which it generally feeds, as to be extremely unpalatable.’‘ Nowadays, of course, we aren’t allowed to eat woodpeckers and other protected species, but falcons and hawks don’t eat many pileateds either, perhaps at least in part because of that foul taste.

Pileated Woodpeckers are shy enough that people don’t often see them up close and personal, but back in the 1700s, a minister named John Bachman birdnapped 5 baby pileateds from their nest to study them in captivity. Bachman wrote:

They were sullen and cross, nay, three died in a few days; but the others, having been fed on grasshoppers forcibly introduced into their mouths, were raised....

Their whole employment consisted in attempting to escape from the prison, regularly demolishing one every two days, although made of pine boards of tolerable thickness. I at last had one constructed with oak boards at the back and sides, and rails of the same in front. This was too much for them, and their only comfort was in passing and holding their bills through the hard bars. In the morning after receiving water, which they drank free they invariably upset the cup or saucer, and although this was large and flattish, they regular turned it quite over. After this they attacked the trough which contained their food, and soon broke it to pieces, and when perchance r happened to approach them with my hand, they made passes at it with their powerful bills with great force.

I kept them in this manner until winter. They were at all times uncleanly and unsociable birds. On opening the door of my study one morning, one of them dashed off by me, alighted on an apple-tree near the house, climbed some distance, and kept watching me from one side and then the other, as if to ask what my intentions were. I walked into my study–the other ·was hammering at my books. They had broken one of the bars of the cage, and must have been at liberty for some hours, judging by the mischief they had done. Tired of my pets, I opened the door, and this last one hearing the voice of his brother. flew towards him and alighted on the same tree. They remained about half an hour, as if consulting each other, after which, taking to their wings together, they flew off in a southern direction, and with much more ease than could have been expected from birds so long kept in captivity. The ground was covered with snow, and I never more saw them.

I trust the Reverend Bachman treated his parishioners with more kindness and understanding than he did those poor pileateds. Here in the northland people don’t bother trying to capture these wildly wonderful birds, but we do take notice when they visit our feeders, which has been happening quite a lot the past several weeks. This must have been a banner year for them-­ they’ve been turning up everywhere. And when a pileated woodpecker is around, people notice. As large as a crow, with a jaunty crest reminding some of Santa’s cap, a Pileated Woodpecker is a Christmas present to remember.