Standing nearly 12 inches tall, the largest North American woodpecker is a magnificent bird, one that will capture your attention when offered the opportunity to see or hear it.
The eerie sounding, unmistakable call of a pileated woodpecker in a conifer forest or cottonwood river bottom, is one that ignites a primordial spirit. Looking like a miniature pterodactyl, the Pileated was named for its beautiful red crest that covers the top of its head.
Pileated woodpeckers are predominately black with white streaks below the eye extending down the neck. In flight, the breast and tips of the wings are black with white underwings. Both male and female have similar appearances yet the female is slightly smaller. When observing the two together, the male will have a more brilliant red crest that extends all the way to the beak, whereas the female’s red crest will stop short of the beak.
Pileated woodpeckers today occupy much of the deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S. as well as conifer and riparian habitats in western Montana, Northern Idaho and the Sierras Nevadas of California, Oregon and Washington.
Related to the presumed extinct Ivory Billed woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker holds a unique niche in their ability to locate grubs or ant larva hidden deep in decaying trees where other smaller woodpeckers are unable to reach.
Like all woodpeckers, the pileated is equipped with zygodactylous feet, which means they have two toes forward and two toes back. Most birds have three toes extending forward with one “thumb” trailing to the rear. This unique adaptation allows the birds to easily grasp tree bark as they climb up a tree in search of prey.
When pecking into decaying trees the pileated leaves a distinct oval-shaped hole some 4-inches long. Other smaller woodpeckers typically leave a circular hole when searching for an insect or nesting site.
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I once watched an adult male peck away at a large downed branch attempting to reveal a tasty grub for over 20 minutes. When I finally saw the bird fly off with a 1-inch grub, I approached the branch, finding a pile of wood chips that resembled the work of a wood carver chiseling away at his next sculpture.
While this bird is not extremely common, if you hear the call or see one attached to a tree, you will likely have an opportunity to get closer as it is not tremendously wary. Slowly approach the bird and you will likely be rewarded with a great viewing opportunity before it flies off echoing that magnificent “Ker-Ker-Ker-Ker-Ker-Ker-Ker” sounding call.
Pileated woodpeckers do not migrate out of the Bitterroot and the pairs usually remain in the dead of winter chasing off younger pileated intruders from their established territory. They nest in deep cavities carved out of the tree with their amazing powerful neck muscles and sharp bill. The male selects the nest site with hopes of attracting a female.
Many other wildlife species benefit from the work of pileated woodpeckers such as an occasional wood duck that nests in an abandoned pileated nest cavity. Even mammals like the raccoon may take up cover in an abandoned -pileated nest cavity.
From a conservation perspective this handsome bird seems to be benefiting from old growth cottonwood wood stands found on properties like Teller. The abundance of old growth conifers and beetle kill trees in the West have also provided foraging habitat for woodpecker species.
The occurrence of devastating wildfires in the West has impacted some habitat, but all in all, the species appears stable if not slightly increasing. Data revealed from the North American Breeding Bird Survey shows a population increase through 2014 for this species across the U.S. If your property has any large snags, (dead trees) consider leaving them for species like the pileated so that you too may hear the magical call and even observe a feeding adult on your land. It is a sight to behold!
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge executive director has over 35 years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.