Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are building contractors in the bird world. Because they move on each year to build new nest and roost cavities, the Audubon society says a “wide array of species use their old spaces” for lodging.

In the woods in the spring, to spot the source of their deliberate territorial drumming, I need to look high – most often on a snag. This time of year when I am attracted by what seems to be the sound of a happy hammer, or a tap dancer overhead, or an elevated person tapping out a text message – it’s a pileated searching for food.

Pileateds mainly eat ants – carpenter ants and others. They chisel distinctive rectangular holes, sometimes drilling through the tree’s outer wood to hollow centers. This summer a downed tree bore their marks, and looked like a collapsed apartment building with window shaped indents.

While pileateds are often said to be crow-size, their decorative, bright red crest (source of the pileated tag) and long beak makes then seem bigger, specially by comparison to the littler Downy woodpeckers or red-breasted sapsuckers. Like carpenters’ plaid shirts, bright red is associated with all these birds.

Their call is distinct and easily recognizable once you’ve heard it, and Kootenay Photos has a remarkable video of a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest hole and calling:


In “Seasons with Birds,” the British Columbia birder Bruce Whittington says he has come to enjoy fall birding best of all, in part because it is the beginning of life for this summer fledglings, what he calls a critical time for birds.

Birds do seem more collegial this time of year – our regular sparrows, juncos, robins, and towhees, adults and juveniles, congregate more often now. I watch many communal, though not always completely cooperative, baths in the dish out front.

And sometimes these bird-flocking events include a pileated or two. Credited with providing “foraging opportunities for other species,” pileateds have been taking apart an old stump here.

Other birds help with the clean up. They’ve learned it’s smart to stick around the big birds with the red crests.

1 thought on “Pileated Woodpecker

  1. “Building contractor” is a great description. In Mexico they are caller “carpinteros.”

    Delightful post and watercolor, Katy. Thanks as always for enriching my day…. K

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