“Does that big woodpecker still live in here?”, a forest visitor asked me last week. By amazing coincidence we were standing almost at the spot where, a few days later, I was lucky enough to see one up close. Though sometimes elusive, Pileated woodpeckers can be surprisingly easy to watch since they often forage near the ground. North America’s largest woodpecker is definitely at home in this forest; both bird and forest have made a comeback in the last half century.
By the early 20th century, many wildlife populations of the Eastern forests reached their low ebb. Images from this time show a landscape of cut stumps, much like those we now see of the world’s devastated rain forests. The Pileated woodpecker became a rare bird, but fortunately was adaptable enough not to go the way of its larger relative, the (likely) extinct Ivory-Billed woodpecker. Specialization is not a good survival trait in the Anthropocene.
The pic above shows a museum drawer with “skins” of the (once) three largest North American woodpeckers. The two biggest are the extinct Imperial woodpecker of mountainous Mexico, and the Ivory-Billed, formerly of southeastern hardwood swamps. Both were genus Campephilus (lover of grubs). I used to think the Pileated woodpecker was a smaller cousin of these, but while researching this post I learned it’s in a different genus, Dryocopus (oak tree cutter). There are many mostly thriving species of both genera in Central and South America. The closest relative of the Pileated is actually the Lineated woodpecker Dryocopus lineatus, which ranges from Mexico to Argentina. It’s striking how similar the two are in appearance.
Initially, I stalked the male Pileated in the pics below as he moved from tree to tree. Then he landed out of view, on the backside of a declining old Black Locust tree. As I crept around the tree with my point and shoot at the ready, he’d apparently found just what he was looking for – a colony of Carpenter ants, Camponotus spp. By the time I came into photo range, he was well occupied hammering, flipping chips out of the cavity (with a backward toss of the head) and spearing ants with his barbed tongue. His head was so busy, I could only get good pics when he took an occaisonal break. (“Good” is a relative term; as a result of recent frustrating attempts to photograph birds, the blogger is upgrading to a bigger point and shoot.)
The presence of Pileated woodpeckers is hard to miss in our small fragment, particularly in spring, when their loud ringing calls and powerful drumming signal the start of woodpecker courtship. And if you don’t see or hear them, evidence of Pileated foraging is easy to find. Most every rotten log has been deconstructed to some degree by their powerful bills. On standing trees, a chiseled-out large rectangle signals the likely presence of carpenter ant channels.
Woodpeckers large and small are considered ” keystone species”; their unique ability to create holes in trees benefits a great number of forest dwellers, from owls to flying squirrels. By tearing up rotten logs and stumps, Pileated woodpeckers help with nutrient cycling – spreading around that good rich humus. For more detail on the habits of these birds, a great post from another blogger:
With the decline of so many large old city trees, these crow sized woodpeckers can even be spotted foraging in neighborhoods near parks. But nesting habitat is in the forest; it’s critical to find just the right tree for excavating the nest hole, and a new one needs to be carved out each year. In this forest the tallest old sycamores with dead side limbs are the preferred choice for our Pileated breeding pair.
Something to listen for next time you go hiking – way up in the canopy a loud staccato drumming, high-pitched ringing call, or a clucking “wuk-wuk-wuk……..” territorial call. And if you’re lucky you may catch a flash of brilliant red, black and white as a Pileated woodpecker wings through the trees.