Pterodactyl -- er, Pileated Woodpecker
He's big, black and bold. You can hear him for miles. And he's coming to a tree near you.
If you are no good at bird identification, then this is the bird for you. The Pileated Woodpecker (
) is extremely unlikely to be confused with anything else out there. This woodpecker is nearly as large as a crow, (16" to 19" inches long) with a--shall we say--VERY prominent red crest. Seriously. What else could this possibly be? [
Photo at left--young male.
There was a bird, once upon a time, if your eyesight isn't all that great, which might have been mistaken for a Pileated. It, however, had lots of white on its wings, making it difficult to mistake even at a distance. That bird was the
, and if it is not extinct it is durn close. It was sighted in 2005 in Arkansas, but there have been no new sightings since that time. For more information on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, click the link at the bottom of the page.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Pileateds.
You might first become aware of a Pileated Woodpecker by the sound of a loud drumming above your head. In a tree. Insect activity in a tree, especially if it is decayed (even in spots) will bring these guys hurtling to your woods for some exceptional excavation. Sort of like what you see in the picture to the right. The bill that digs these holes is two inches long. Rectangular holes that keep getting larger... these were probably access holes to insects. Nesting holes would make these look like amateur night. Nesting holes can be so large that the tree can break in half, at least in the smaller trees the birds are forced to use in many places.
You would think that a bird this big would be after some kind of big bug. But these birds really, really like ants. Especially carpenter ants. They also eat other insects, beetle larvae, nuts and fruit. The decay setting in on this tree -- inhabited by carpenter ants, no doubt -- might have gone unnoticed for quite a bit longer had it not been for the attentions of the Pileated Woodpecker coming to call. Now that the rot is evident to the homeowners (and the tree is large enough to be a threat to their house), they will probably call in a tree surgeon to see just how much has to be pruned.
Woodpeckers this large need large trees in which to nest. This factor is probably the key one in the loss of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, who is even larger than the Pileated. Old Growth timber would be the only kind large enough to sustain a population of the birds. If there is a glimmer of hope in Arkansas, it is that the numbers of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to be going down--which might indicate that they have competition for nest sites...perhaps from Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. Probably wishful thinking, but I'll go ahead and stick my neck out there.
The only difference between male and female Pileateds is the red "whisker" coming back from the bill. Only the male has this. The whole stripe is black on the female. Both birds have a broad white stripe running down both sides of their necks. These birds can be found in most of the Eastern United States, across Canada, and back down the west coast of the U.S.
In the last photo, you can see how the Pileated Woodpecker, like all woodpeckers, uses his tail feathers for leverage. A Pileated Woodpecker will use a
, but it must be a large one in order to accommodate his much larger body (compared to other woodpeckers). The best thing you can do for these guys, however, is to leave large trees and especially dead ones, if you can.