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pileated woodpecker

A pileated woodpecker at work. Photo: James Mann via Creative Commons

Powerful Woodpecker Leaves Big Chips

By Kevin McKeon, Director, Mousam Way Land Trust

Although pileated woodpeckers are shy and secretive birds, their sounds can often be heard along Sanford trails. This bird is one of the most striking forest-dwelling birds in North America, and since the ivory billed woodpecker was declared extinct last October, it’s the largest woodpecker in North America. It’s nearly the size of a crow, black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming red crest. Adult males have a red line from the bill to the throat; in females, these are black.

Pileated woodpeckers hold large territories year-round, and they mate for life. Their flight is strong and undulating, with deep, quick wingbeats; they’re often described as the fighter jets of the forest! The oldest known pileated was a 12-year, 11-month-old male being studied in Maryland.

In April, the pileated excavates a nesting cavity in a large tree that can be two feet deep. Both parents incubate three to five eggs for 12 to 16 days. The young don’t chirp, but make hissing sounds, and may take a month to fledge, or fly on their own. Martens, weasels, squirrels, snakes, and gray foxes that can climb trees will attack their nests. Adults have few predators other than large owls and hawks.

Once the chicks fledge, the parents abandon the cavity forever, allowing these excavations to be used by a variety of forests critters for years, providing homes and shelter for songbirds, owls, ducks, squirrels, martens, raccoons, and bats. Other woodpeckers and smaller birds such as wrens may be attracted to pileated holes to feed on the insects found in them. Smaller birds like chickadees huddle together to escape cold winter nights.

Pileated woodpeckers forage in areas containing large dead wood, either snags, stumps, or logs lying on the forest floor. They make large rectangular holes deep inside the wood chasing carpenter ants, their favorite food. Often, these holes will weaken the tree’s bole (the main stem or trunk), causing trees to snap in the breeze. The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to eat tree-destroying wood-boring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. Large wood chips will collect on the ground below trees, and their powerful strikes can be heard far away. Lucky birdwatchers may see them at their backyard bird feeders.

A large amount of the pileated woodpecker’s habitat is protected by the U.S. Forest Service, and populations are monitored in some areas. As a keystone species, pileated and other woodpeckers are an essential and irreplaceable part of their habitats, playing a unique and crucial role in the natural function of the surrounding ecosystem. Large woody logs on the forest floor and big dead and dying trees are the pileateds’ required habitat, which can be created to support these magnificent birds and many other forest critters.

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