Woody is alive and well, not just on Saturday morning kids TV, but also in the forests of the eastern half of this country, much of Canada, and a narrow strip in the far west United States. He’s actually a pileated woodpecker (PW), the largest and easiest to identify of the whole woodpecker clan. Seventeen to nineteen inches tall – crow sized – PWs are spectacular to say the least. With a black body, wings and chest, black and white stripes on its face, and a brilliant red crest on its head, these large birds are so unusual that you’ll never have to guess what it is if you see one.
PWs are powerful, feeding largely on carpenter ants and insect larvae they carve out of trees using their beak like an power chisel, hammering away until you’d think their head would crack. They also eat fruit and berries. The sound of their ratchety pounding is loud and distinctive, easily heard at a distance. Their call is a strident and rapidly repeated “wik-wik-wik-wik-wik,” similar to a flicker, but much noisier. PWs are geographically possessive, defending their 100 to 300-acre territory vigorously, and declaring their ownership by pounding with their beak on trees, utility poles, and sometimes metal structures and posts. Drumming is also used to attract mates.
A PW can really tear up a tree as they make their ragged holes or cavities for nesting and roosting. Insect hunting also results in large holes in trees. If you see a hollowed-out, oblong tree cavity 4-5 inches wide and a foot or more in length it’s most likely a PWs work. Sometimes their cavity carving actually results in a small tree breaking in half. I’ve seen telephone poles that were severely damaged by these pointy-headed chiselers.
To enable them to capture ants and other insects and pull them from their wooden tunnels, PWs have a very long, narrow, barbed tongue that starts almost on top of their head and then loops around the back of their head under the skin, up through their throat, and out their beak. Their skull is thick and well reinforced to withstand the incessant pounding necessary to get a meal. Next time you’re murmuring about how hard it is to open one of those plastic bags that frozen veggies come in, be grateful you don’t have to bat your head against a tree to get your dinner!
PWs mate for life, but usually roost for the night alone in their tree cavities, openings that have multiply exits for escape protection from predators. Several hawks, owls, martens, foxes, weasels, squirrels, and snakes prey on these birds.
Two to four eggs are laid in a nesting chamber 14-24 inches deep, carved for this purpose. Both adults sit on the eggs to incubate them. Hatching takes a little over two weeks and the young, fed by the adults, are able to fly out of the nest at about day 27 after hatching. They generally stay with their parents through their first summer.
If you’re a youngster or still young at heart, check out the cartoon version of the pileated woodpecker at the Woody Woodpecker wikia site on the web.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.