The Pileated Woodpecker

One of our most striking forest birds is Dryocopus pileatus, the Pileated Woodpecker. Also known as Logcock it is nearly the largest woodpecker in North America, seventeen inches tall, about the size of the crow. Only the extremely rare Ivory-bill Woodpecker is a bit bigger. Mostly black-feathered with facial white stripes on its neck and back this amazing creature sports a brilliant red crest. Males exhibit a distinguishing red stripe on the cheek. A conspicuous small white patch occurs on wing edges. When clinging vertically to the sides of trees with prominent, triangular crests and largess it can be mistaken for no other. For those of us old enough to remember Saturday morning cartoons of a certain era, its characteristic profile is almost certainly the template used for the hyper-active if not downright crazed animated character, Woody Woodpecker. Contrarily, for their large size Logcock is very shy.

In flight both sexes display much white on their wings' undersides. Their flying pattern is similar to other woodpeckers in that they soar with a slight undulating dip during each flight segment, then flap their wings in slight ascent, then soar / dip again in a repeating pattern. This identifying trait demarcates them from the similar-sized crow whose flight tends to be more straight forward accompanied with periods of steadier flapping. The Pileated ranges year round from Prince Edward Island, south to Florida, west to central Texas and north to southeastern Manitoba; then continues in a band west northwest through the central and western Canadian provinces dipping down into the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in a narrowing swath to central California.

The population of this dramatic bird has gradually increased circa the start of the 20th Century as woodlands once again re-established in the east. It had become quite rare as forests had been cleared for the pastoral, idyllic work of agriculture. When farming lessened numbers rebounded as forests regrew. Presently, where it has not been pestered Pileated Woodpecker has even adapted to wooded areas and parks at the verge of large cities. They are content in the spectrum from coniferous to deciduous woodlands. In the east young forests suffice but western populations seem to be drawn more to older growth.

One of its needs, both for food and nesting, is deceased but still standing trees. These magnificent long-necked birds hammer deep rectangular holes in both supine and standing trees in search of food. They pry and probe in the quest with strong, chiseled bills the color of charcoal. Carpenter ants, the bane of wooden structures and homeowners everywhere, make up approximately 60% of its diet supplemented with the larva of boring beetles, termites and other insects. Wild fruits, nuts and berries provide nearly 25% of its nutritional needs. When harvesting vegetarian fare Pileated Woodpeckers can be downright acrobatic. The abandoned cavities they create then become important sheltering opportunities to a number of species including owls, ducks, bats, pine martens and swifts. As do other woodpeckers Logcocks drum on dead trees to announce territorial claims. When they drill it is percussive, resonant, slow and loud. Sonorous, it carries on the wind a distance.

Courtship behavior includes raising crests, spreading wings to display white patches, swinging heads in a back and forth motion plus showing off white while gliding in midair. Both sexes will hammer away at a chosen nesting site generally between 15 to 18 feet above the ground. Usually a dead, vertical tree is chosen where a deep cavity is hollowed. Less often a large dead branch may be utilized still connected to a living tree. On rare occasion the hole will be excavated in a utility pole. An average of four white eggs are laid. Incubation takes approximately 18 days and eggs are coddled by both parents. Males take nighttime duties and parts of each day setting on eggs in the countdown to hatching. Both parents hunt and tend fledglings by the regurgitation method of child rearing. Nestlings fledge by the 28th day and remain with mom and dad for two to three months learning independence and Pileated skills.

We spot individuals from time to time at the wooded edges of Quackin' Grass. Unfortunately I've never had a camera at these moments. Many photos on line can be accessed. One winning afternoon we spotted two together, either a mating pair or a parent with youngster. When surprised and alarmed the bird will fly to a tree much farther from your proximity while launching into a very loud, percussive and quickly repeated "cuk cuk cuk cuk cuk cuk, etc." Take note: this is your tip-off that an individual is near. Follow the series of rising and falling "cuks" and locate this woodland wonder. Look up. Listen. Enjoy.

penned by Wayne Paquette, December 2015