Column: Pileated woodpeckers

Published 4:46 pm Thursday, July 21, 2005

By Staff
As most of you regular readers know, I'm a forest fire fighter. Last week I was on a decent sized fire up in Allegan County. We contained it in a short day but spent three more days wandering around in the singed pines dousing little flare ups and hot spots. During the course of this I noticed that something was chopping and ripping big holes in just about every freshly scorched dead snag. From the large size of the holes and their rectangular shape I had a good idea what it was. I started paying more attention and soon saw a big, black, nearly crow sized bird with a crested head dart through the shadowy trees ahead. Soon I saw another off to the side, this time white wing patches and a brilliant red head crest flashed in the bright sunlight. They were pileated woodpeckers.
Pileated woodpeckers were considered the largest woodpecker in the U.S. until the recent re-finding of the ivory billed woodpecker relegated them to a close second place. The male's red crest extends from the base of the bill to the back of his head. The female only displays red on the back of her head.
Pileated woodpeckers range throughout all the heavily wooded areas of the U.S. and Southern Canada but their stronghold is the eastern states. They are at home anywhere there are large tracts of forest. It doesn't matter if the forests are pine or deciduous, just as long as there are plenty of big trees. They do have a preference, however, for streamside forests. The cool, humid environment of river bottoms promotes wood decay. The rotting logs and snags attract ants, termites and wood boring beetles which are all top of the menu items for pileated woodpeckers.
Extensive logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s along with the loss of all the majestic chestnut trees to chestnut blight wreaked havoc on pileated woodpecker populations and their numbers perilously declined. However, by the mid 1900s second generation timber was maturing and the big woodpeckers began to stage a long, slow comeback. Helping their recovery was Dutch elm disease, which began its rampage in the 1950s. The huge dead elms make perfect woodpecker condos as well as providing bumper crops of ants and beetles.
Pileated woodpecker pairs stay together all year in a territory of around 200 acres. While grubbing for insects they whack shallow, rectangular holes in the wood as described earlier. Their nesting and roosting cavities are triangular, about four inches across and one to two feet deep and situated anywhere from 15- to 80-feet off the ground. Both mom and dad incubate the eggs. Dad has night shift while mom roosts. During the day mom takes over. In this area the eggs are laid in May and the young fledge a month later. The young'uns hang out with mom and pop all summer.
During my youthful birding days in the 1950s and '60s I only dreamed of seeing a pileated. If any were around I never heard about it. My first encounter was many years later in Washington State. I was quietly sneaking through the woods hoping to pot a deer when I heard the most ghastly commotion on the back side of a ridge. There were whacks, thumps, snaps and pounding. I could hear branches breaking and wood being torn to shreds. I was about half spooked for this had to be at least a herd of grizzly bears or perhaps sasquatch tribes engaged in war. I checked my ammo supply then stalked toward the sounds of carnage. With bated breath I crested the ridge but there were no big, furry creatures. I crept close to the awful din and there on the ground was a lone pileated woodpecker happily converting a fallen fir tree into mulch.
Thanks to much improved timber management pileated woodpeckers are back in good numbers and I see them quite regularly. The next time you're in the woods and hear a sasquatch fight in progress, stalk close for a look at one of our neatest birds. Carpe diem.