For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpeckers and other striking birds
Back in 1978, when Trumpeter Swans were so endangered that they could be found only in a very few spots in Wyoming and Montana, I once spotted a pair in Yellowstone National Park. Naturally I pulled over with my sister-in-law to gawk at the lovely birds. Seeing us out of the car snapping photos, several other driers pulled over to check out what wildlife might be there, but when they saw we were looking at “just a couple of birds,” they drove off, some giving us dirty looks as if we had misled them on purpose.
Now Trumpeter Swans are being reestablished in Minnesota, where they and over four hundred other species of birds, many strikingly beautiful, live right in our midst. But only a few of these birds have the power to give us an emotional reaction whenever we see them. Most people react viscerally to the sight of a Turkey Vulture chowing down on a roadkill or a Merlin zooming in and plucking a Cedar Waxwing out of a flock, thrilling at or recoiling from the harsh realities of nature. A lot of people can’t help but smile to see a nearby chickadee or hummingbird, and many eyes widen at the sight of a Scarlet Tanager.
Some birds would be a thrilling sight if they were just a little harder to find. Blue Jays are so vivid and vivacious that birders would gather from miles around to see one, if only the jays weren’t squawking their heads off everywhere without you even looking. Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, and our good old loon all manage to elicit a thrilled gasp from us now and then, but overall we take them for granted.
But one bird that can’t help but get a reaction from most people no matter how often we see it is the Pileated Woodpecker. This huge woodpecker–the largest surviving woodpecker in North America–commands our attention with its magnificent size, brilliant red and white head markings, and disconcerting gold eyes. The crested profile with narrow, snaky neck brings to mind a pterodactyl, and the exuberance with which it attacks a bug-burdened tree gives it a powerful presence. The single-mindedness of its hammering and chiseling allow us to quietly approach, but the moment a Pileated becomes aware of us, it is likely to take off and vanish.
Here in Minnesota, Pileated Woodpeckers are adjusting to living near people. I’ve even had a pair try to nest in my own backyard, just outside my second-story bedroom window, in an old, established neighborhood in Duluth. As more and more of their babies grow up in our backyards, they’ll become easier and easier for more of us to see. My pair seemed to like sleeping in in the morning–at least they didn’t make a racket for a good half hour after flickers and Downy Woodpeckers had started their hammering–and they only attack trees that are infested with insects, so these breathtaking birds may even continue to be welcome in our backyards as they become more common. But even if they were to become as abundant as Blue Jays, the Pileated Woodpecker is one species for whom, no matter what, attention must be paid.