[Field Notes]

Pileated Woodpeckers

Compared to the diminutive Downy Woodpecker that taps away at the suet on our bird feeders, the Pileated Woodpecker is enormous – crow-sized, with a wing span of 66-75 cm, and tipping the scales at a hefty 300 g. By comparison, a Downy Woodpecker weighs a mere 25g. If a Pileated Woodpecker does turn up in your backyard, it can eviscerate a block of suet in a matter of seconds.

The strong, deep rhythmical wingbeats of the Pileated Woodpecker’s flight is slower than the roller coaster flight of our more familiar Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.

Historically, numbers of Pileated Woodpeckers declined with the clearing of the eastern forests – a single pair, for example, requires about 40 hectares of pristine breeding habitat. But in the last 20 years, sources say that the numbers of these tenacious woodpeckers have bounced back as much as 50 percent.

As Pileated Woodpeckers begin to accept more fragmented forests and open areas, they can be more readily spotted. Occasionally they will visit our feeders, but typically, Pileated Woodpeckers are not a backyard species. However, that seems to be changing. Over the years, Project FeederWatch has tracked the presence of the Pileated Woodpecker across Ontario, noting that their presence at bird feeders has increased from one percent in the 1990s to almost eight percent in just 20 years. Clearly, these woodpeckers are becoming more acclimated to the presence of humans.

Pileated Woodpeckers are primarily insect eaters. They forage for their favourite food – carpenter ants – by using their long bills to chip large rectangular holes in rotting trees. They actually listen for ant activity and then hammer their way through the wood towards their prey. The Pileated has even been observed banging away at utility poles, mistaking the gentle hum of the wires for the sounds of tasty carpenter ants feeding away inside.

Once through the wood, they use their long, barbed and very sticky tongue to get at the ants.

Several years ago, one industrious Pileated Woodpecker chiselled away at a new roof on the steepled top of a Picton museum until it had managed to excavate a baseball-sized entrance. Upon entering, the woodpecker found the attic area of the steeple far too cavernous, and abandoned any further efforts, leaving museum staff shaking their heads in dismay over the large hole that now had to be repaired.

Come spring, these gentle giants of the forest are not so gentle. When love is in the air and the males are out to impress a bride-to-be, their loud staccato calls echo throughout the forest. The males likely figured out centuries ago that faint hearts never won fair maidens. To woo a female, it had to be through actions. What better way to display power than to disembowel a tree with its powerful beak sending large wood chips cascading to the ground! If an amorous Pileated Woodpecker should enter your backyard this spring, enjoy its presence, and hope it doesn’t target one of your prized trees.

Our feeders are poised and ready.

Story by:
Terry Sprague

Photography by:
Helmer Nielsen