4/9 Big Woodpecker

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“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.

small to large: Pileated, Ivory-Billed, Imperial

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.

Lineated woodpecker    image: Magnus Manske

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.

wood chips indicate recent Pileated activity

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:




6 inch wide Pileated nest or roost hole on a fallen limb

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.

taking a break from gorging on ants

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.


















13 thoughts on “4/9 Big Woodpecker

  1. Lola Carroll

    This is very exciting news! I’ve never had the good fortune to see a pileated woodpecker. Which trail or trails would you recommend for possible sightings? What time of day is best or is that open ended? Have you ever noticed this bird along the loop in Joe Creason Park, by chance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      I mostly see them in the lower part of the preserve – between posts #4 and 10 and near #18 and 19. Listen for the loud drumming and calls, that’s often the only clue of their presence. Watch for big old syvcamores with large holes in the upper limbs. When a Pileated is feeding lower on trees you can sometimes hear the excavation work! And, morning are an active time for all birds.


  2. Jim Sky

    I was lucky enough to see one at the reserve last year. It was only the second pileated woodpecker that I had ever seen.(The first was at Caperton Swamp 40 years ago). The one last year was in late summer, in the flat near the creek. It was drumming on a log. I watched from maybe 20 yds away with my binoculars. My memory is that he soon pulled a gigantic thumb sized grub from the trunk. I feel it knew I was there, and must have been familiar with people.

    My third Pileated Woodpecker came just a month later in a tall tree in front of our new (old) house.


    1. oneforestfragment

      Great sighting at the preserve – likely they are less shy here, much like the rest of the “wildlife”. Glad to hear they are near your house, you must be near a forest. Spring is good for Pileated watching since it’s courtship and nesting season.


      1. Jim Sky

        Yes, we now have place on Kenwood Hill (the poor side). There are acres of woods behind us. I feel so blessed. Most of my life has been in much more urban surroundings. This is heaven in comparison. Today I think I saw my first Hairy Woodpecker. I have been watching the Downies at the feeder everyday, then suddenly this one seems really odd to me and I realized it was too big. I am just a newbie at birds, but I am loving it.


  3. Hatten

    Thanks for the post–and the blog. I’m glad to discover this wonderful blog. I used to bird the Beargrass nature preserve quite regularly, and remember seeing Pileated Woodpeckers. (Have less time for birding these days, but still enjoy coming over, as I live fairly close.) Glad to hear the Pileateds are still nesting. And of course it’s easy to see other woodpeckers–at least Downies and Red-bellied. But what about Flickers? And Hairy Woodpeckers? And yellow-bellied sapsuckers? Do we know if these species nest in the preserve or not?
    Keep up the blog!


    1. oneforestfragment

      Thanks for following the blog, Hatten! I see Flickers regularly in the preserve, and Hairy woodpeckers every now and then (maybe I’d see more if I looked and listened closely). Sapsuckers do not breed here, but do winter here and can still be seen due to the late spring. One that doesn’t seem to be here anymore is the Red-headed woodpecker, which is declining in many areas. This forest has excellent woodpecker habitat, with many dead and declining trees, plus now the Emerald Ash borer die-off.


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