By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! This was the sound I heard outside my house while building a snowman in the recent wet, heavy snowfall. I looked over and with great excitement, spotted a pileated woodpecker. I watched while it pounded against the base of a tree, snow flying as the bird scooped it behind itself. These large woodpeckers are almost crow-sized, with a wing spread of up to 30 inches. This bird, a model for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, is mostly black with a large red crest on its head. White stripes run down the face to the neck. Their wild laughter-like call and drumming can be heard long distances through a forest. There are a lot more interesting facts about pileated woodpeckers!
What is their habitat? Pileated woodpeckers prefer mature forests, but have adapted to second-growth forests. In younger, select-cut forests they use large trees left behind.
What do they eat? When pileated woodpeckers hear an insect under the bark, they begin pecking with their beaks. They have a thick skull to avoid headaches. Their tongue is long with a sharp end for spiking insects inside the tree, and also has a sticky section to attach to the insects. This woodpecker prefers carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae. Their straight bill is also good for collecting fruits and nuts. They seem to be great carpenters, boring large holes into tree trunks. They can pry off long slivers of wood to expose their food, and make elongated holes so they can “dig” deeper into the tree and still accommodate their body size. These excavations are so extensive that they can attract other woodpeckers and even wrens to the same feeding sites.
How else do they use their carpentry skills? Pileated woodpeckers raise their young in tree holes, using a new hole each year in a dead tree or branch. It can take up to six weeks to pound out their new nesting site. A roosting site often has multiple entrances. Sometimes their cavities can cause a smaller tree to break in half! Once the holes are abandoned, they provide homes for other forest songbirds.
What are other interesting pileated woodpecker facts? If an egg falls off the nest, they have been observed moving their eggs, a rare habit in the bird world. A sad fact is that because they often choose taller, mature trees, they face danger from lightning strikes.
Pileated woodpeckers are unforgettable. Once you see one, you will never forget what it looks like, and once you learn to recognize their laughing call, you can laugh in response just hearing it. It is also worth trying to catch a glimpse of it in flight with its black body and white wing linings, mixed with its swooping flight. And how is it pronounced – with the long or short i? According to the resources I searched, either way works!
For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, Our Shared Planet, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com.