The year of the Pileated

By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link
I decided that the first bird I saw this morning (January 1) would be my bird for the year – as in the Chinese New Year custom, i.e., Year of the Rooster, Year of the Ox, etc.  I was in my usual morning location – reading in bed when I saw a flash of black pass over the skylight.  It could have been a crow, but I didn’t see it well enough to ID with certainty, so I thought I’d wait for a definite sighting.  A moment or two later there was a loud pounding on the front of the house.  Mike yelled upstairs, “Is that you?”  I let him know it wasn’t as I went into my office to open a window and shoo away what by now I knew to be a Pileated Woodpecker.  As I reached the window the large black and white bird flew off to a nearby dead aspen where it gripped the trunk and looked around.  So – this is the Year of the Pileated, which I will consider auspicious since these largest of the woodpecker family are strong, striking and with the behavior of a monarch of the forest.  It’s most striking feature of course is its fiery red crest that sweeps back from its head.  Actually when I think about it, the ‘hairdo’ is somewhat reminiscent of the soon to be president, only the Pileated comes by its naturally and looks much more regal. 
I have written about this bird before, but seeing one never loses its shock value.  Weighing 10-16 ounces, with a wingspan of  27-30” and a body length of 16.5”, it is only an inch shorter than an American Crow.  Its manner of flight is dramatic as well. It seems the Pileated only flaps when flying away, because it comes in to our feeders in a sudden, swooping glide, like a kamikaze fighter.
Dryocopus pileatus is the scientific name for this bird. The Greek translation of the first word means ‘tree’ and ‘cleaver’ or ‘wood cutter’.  That’s about as accurate as you can get for this bird with a beak powerful enough to excavate square or rectangular holes 6” in width.  Their nest cavities are 8” across and 10-30” deep.  Here in the northern regions they live in mixed conifer and deciduous forests. Birches, oaks, maples, pines, ash and basswood are favorites.  Our forest has a preponderance of red and white pine, as well as lots of balsam fir and aspen.  In our 10 acres of woods, we also have a lifetime supply of dead or dying trees.  We were out in the woods today clearing some of the downed timber and building a small, but cheerful fire; a perfect winter time activity.  As I walked around picking up sticks and branches I found one tree that looked like a piece of standing, arboreal Swiss cheese.  The Pileated’s had thoroughly scrounged through this old snag.  It won’t be long before it topples over from lack of structural support.
Besides the need to excavate nightly roost cavities and nest cavities, these woodpeckers are constantly on the hunt for the protein they get from insects.  Their specialty is carpenter ants.  They have the ability to pin point a colony within a trunk with great accuracy. Some believe they do this by picking up on the formic acid given off the ants, or by the particular hollow sound in a trunk.  Whatever technique they use, they are experts.  The stomach of a single Pileated had 2600 ants in it. 
We admire their ability and appreciate the work they do ridding the forest of destructive insects; we are less thrilled when they decide to check out our cedar sided house for food.  That’s what the female was doing this morning.  It definitely attracts our attention and we can scare them away easily when we’re home, but how often do they do this when we aren’t home?  It is one of the hazards we face by choosing to live within a forest.
The other characteristic that sets the Pileated woodpecker apart from its peers is its loud, raucous, call.  It is described as ‘yucka, yucka, yucka, yucka’ and ‘cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk,’  I really can’t find a way to describe with words the yodel-like call it gives, but this was the model for the cartoon character we grew up with – Woody the Woodpecker – both the call and the image.  How many kids knew that there actually was a bird that looked like Woody?  I was probably 30 years old when I saw my first one. 
So as this New Year begins, strive to live as a Pileated; be bold, stand out from the crowd and by all means let your voice be heard.


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