Pileated Woodpecker Up Close and Personal

pileated woodpecker
CC BY 2.0) by Seabamirum

Sometimes when spending the day hunting, we take in interesting sites up close and personal, not necessarily provided by the game we seek. That’s what’s so enjoyable; you never know what you may see. Perched in a treestand high above the forest floor we are privy to enjoying a bird’s eye view of nature going about its daily business completely uninhibited.

With this year’s deer hunting season in the final stages I climbed into my stand with a sense of Zen resignation. For once, I just wanted to relax into a state without any goals or objectives.

Daylight was barely an hour old when the silence was broken by a loud “wuk-wuk-wuk.” A few seconds later the black, white and brilliant red colors of a large pileated woodpecker could be seen coming through the canopy before attaching itself vertically to a dead maple tree just a few yards away. For the next 30 minutes I watched as it began excavating holes almost spitting distance from where I sat.

Although these birds are not uncommon, it was the first time I had the opportunity to take in the bird’s natural activity that close. The United States is home to 21 species of woodpeckers with seven calling the Hoosier state home. They share the woods with others like the red-headed woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow bellied sapsucker and several others.
The pileated woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds in Indiana. Nearly the size of a crow, this bird is predominately black in color with bold, white stripes down the neck and under its wings, capped with a flaming red crest.

These birds are normally heard before being seen. Their loud call or whacking at dead trees usually gives notice to their presence.

As the bird navigated through the standing timber it was interesting to watch how it folded itself into a “C” shape before landing vertically on the large trunks. It then used its stiff tail feathers for support, much like a three-legged stool, before it began pounding its head into the frozen wood. It was amazing to watch the amount of chips it could excavate in a short period. Unlike other woodpeckers, the chunks it hammered out hit the forest floor with authority.

It was fun watching the bird chisel out a large rectangular hole and the pieces of wood it could peel from the tree were amazing. When it was done the cavity it created joined several others it had made days before. The excavations were so extensive there is no doubt they will provide burrows for other birds and mammals. There were several smaller trees that had broken in half; probably due to the weakening by the bird’s handiwork.

The preferred diet of the pileated woodpecker is carpenter ants. Although they will take grubs, termites and other wood boring beetles. Occasionally they will also eat wild fruits and nuts. They primarily live in mature stands of deciduous forests although like many birds and animals have adapted to include coniferous woodlands as well. They can also be found in wooded urban areas. Some people mentioned they have had some success drawing them to backyard suet feeders as well.

In early spring the male begins excavating the nest cavity and does most of the work. The entrance hole is oblong, rather than the circular shape of most woodpecker holes. When finished, the nest hole can measure up to 24-inches deep. The pileated woodpecker does not line their nest with anything but wood chips, unlike other birds that use feathers, grasses and leaves to create a cozy nursery.

Do you ever wonder if woodpeckers get a headache? The answer is no. Unlike heavy metal rockers in a mosh pit, a woodpecker’s head is specifically designed for all that head banging. In fact, the woodpecker’s shock absorbing qualities were intensely studied by engineers in designing protective cases for airplane flight recorders. I am also convinced Woody Woodpecker of kids cartoon fame was patterned after the pileated woodpecker. Who knows, maybe this bird has had more of an impact on our lives than we ever realized.

More info:

Pileated woodpecker page at Allaboutbirds.com

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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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