Speaking of Nature: The pileated woodpecker is magnificent to behold

  • An adult male pileated woodpecker pauses at his work to take a speculative look at Bill Danielson. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This oval hole, the fruits of the woodpecker’s labors, is the telltale sign of pileated woodpecker activity. People see the holes more often than the bird. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, November 12, 2017

At the beginning of every month, I sit down with a new bird list and review the species I am likely to see. First, there are the familiar species, like chickadees and cardinals. I can count on seeing them every month of the year. Then, there are the migratory species, like juncos or towhees. I can count on seeing them during every month of the appropriate season. These are the birds that form the foundation of every monthly list I make.

Finally, there are a handful of species that are simply maddening. These species are permanent residents of my general home range, but are either wide-ranging or secretive in their movements and they are diabolically difficult to detect. Such birds would include screech owls and ruffed grouse; species that behave more like spirits than flesh-and-blood birds.

Among these species that torment the birder — and delight, if you get a glimpse — is the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). It is the largest and most powerful member of the woodpecker clan to be found in New England. This bird is magnificent to behold, haunting to hear, and devilishly difficult to see. As a result, this bird, which should appear on every single one of my monthly lists, in fact appears on only half.

One probable reason for this is the extremely large feeding territory of the pileated woodpecker. The diminutive and familiar downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) may have a territory of about two acres and a home range of up to eight acres. My yard is about six acres, and I know that I have two to three pairs that come to my feeders. In contrast, the larger pileated woodpecker has a feeding territory of 100 to 200 acres. This size can vary, depending on the condition of the forest that is covering the land. Pileated woodpeckers are big birds that like big trees.

At about 17 inches in length, and with a wingspan of around 29 inches, the pileated woodpecker is slightly smaller than an American crow. The different demands of the lifestyles of the two species have resulted in different body shapes and different wingspans (the American crow is only 1 inch longer, but has a wingspan that is 10 inches wider), but when you see them in the air, they are both large, black birds of about the same dimensions.

The fact that pileated woodpeckers must excavate tree cavities for nesting is surely a source of selective pressure that would encourage smaller wings and a generally more slender build. Even so, it still requires the birds to find dead or dying trees with a diameter of 14 inches or greater for nesting, and I can only imagine that the motto of a bird with a body length of about 17 inches could only be, “bigger is better.” As a result, the second growth forests that cover much of suburban New England may not offer a lot for pileated woodpeckers. These birds want huge tracts of land with lots of big trees.

White pine is a favorite species, especially if the pine suffers from heart rot. This is a condition in which the central portion of a tree’s trunk is full of decay, while the outer cambium (or sapwood) is perfectly healthy. This condition sets up a perfect environment for carpenter ants, which are a main staple for pileated woodpeckers throughout the winter.

I was very fortunate to cross paths with a pileated woodpecker earlier this year. I was walking along a forest path, and I heard what sounded like a person chopping wood. When I went to investigate, I discovered that the sound was actually being made by a pileated woodpecker that was energetically excavating a white pine. The bird was an adult male, and I was content to sit and watch from a friendly distance. An adult female would not have had the red “moustache” near its beak, and would not have had red feathers on its forehead.

When the bird finally moved off of its own accord, I walked up to the tree it had been bashing and discovered that the tree was suffering from heart rot. The woodpecker had mined out an oval-shaped hole that is the telltale sign of pileated activity, and there was an impressive pile of wood chips on the ground at the tree’s base. It was the first time I’ve had a close encounter with one of these magnificent birds in more than 10 years, and I considered myself very lucky.

Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks. He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 19 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.