Looking Back: A Pileated Woodpecker

The Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, (“tree-chopper, capped”) is a fairly common bird throughout its range, which stretches from eastern North America through Canada to the west coast. It requires habitat with large mature trees, which provide its primary food source as well as roosting and nesting sites. I spotted this one last week (1 February, 2010) while walking the Amisk Wuche trail in Elk Island National Park. You can’t help but notice these birds when they are working in the vicinity. The hammer-blows they apply when breaking into dead wood are worthy of an enthusiastic but somewhat tipsy carpenter. This bird was not shy, and it allowed me to observe and photograph for almost an hour as it worked away at this dead tree. Pileated woodpeckers are impressive birds, crow-sized with white underwings and the startling red cap. They are a treat to see gliding through the woods and sometimes they can startle you with their silent approach. Occasionally you may hear the call, a manic laugh that will set you grinning, albeit somewhat apprehensively, with an occasional look over the shoulder.

The birds feed by using their powerful beaks to pry away bark or chip away dead wood. In northern forests, the major prey item is carpenter ants, followed by wood-boring beetle grubs. Pileated woodpeckers can also sometimes be seen feeding on ants at ground level. They are also known to feed on nuts, berries and even corn. The holes they excavate when feeding are rectangular and, when combined with the holes that they produce for roosting and nesting, they also help create shelter for other birds and small animals.

Wood chips flying...

They nest in tree cavities. The male chooses a dead or dying tree and excavates a hole, which John Audubon describes as: “Its depth is from twelve to eighteen inches, its breadth from two and a half to three, and at the bottom sometimes five or six.” Once the nest is complete, the male will attract the female, who, if accepting, will mate and eventually lay from three to six eggs in the cavity. Both parents will incubate the eggs and take part in feeding the hatchlings.

Illustration from John James Audubon’s “The birds of America.” New York: J.B. Chevalier, 1840-1844. (BHL).

James Audubon painted and described the Pileated woodpecker, and I have extracted some of the more interesting selections from his book. He opens with this passage:

“It would be difficult for me to say in what part of our extensive country I have not met with this hardy inhabitant of the forest. Even now, when several species of our birds are becoming rare, destroyed as they are, either to gratify the palate of the epicure, or to adorn the cabinet of the naturalist, the Pileated Woodpecker is everywhere to be found in the wild woods, although scarce and shy in the peopled districts.”

He describes how difficult they were to hunt down and to kill, because they would always move to the other side of the tree trunk, and after being shot:

If wounded without falling, it mounts at once to the highest fork of the tree, where it squats and remains in silence. It is then very difficult to kill it, and sometimes, when shot dead, it clings so firmly to the bark that it may remain hanging for hours. When winged and brought to the ground, it cries loudly on the approach of its enemy, and essays to escape by every means in its power, often inflicting a severe wound if incautiously seized.”

Audubon speaks of the “cruelty of the species” to blue birds, from this description provided to him by the Reverend John Bachman:

“A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers had a nest in an old elm tree, in a swamp, which they occupied that year; the next spring early, two Blue-birds took possession of it, and there had young. Before these were half grown, the Woodpeckers returned to the place, and, despite of the cries and reiterated attacks of the Blue-birds, the others took the young, not very gently, as you may imagine, and carried them away to some distance. Next the nest itself was disposed of, the hole cleaned and enlarged, and there they raised a brood. The nest, it is true, was originally their own. The tree was large, but so situated, that, from the branches of another I could reach the nest. The hole was about 18 inches deep, and I could touch the bottom with my hand. The eggs, which were laid on fragments of chips, expressly left by the birds, were six, large, white and translucent. Before the Woodpeckers began to sit, I robbed them of their eggs, to see if they would lay a second time. They waited a few days as if undecided, when on a sudden I heard the female at work again in the tree; she once more deepened the hole, made it broader at bottom, and recommenced laying. This time she laid five eggs. I suffered her to bring out her young, both sexes alternately incubating, each visiting the other at intervals, peeping into the hole to see that all was right and well there, and flying off afterwards in search of food.”

Later, the Reverend robbed the nest again, in an attempt to raise the young birds to learn more of their habits:

I carried them home, to judge of their habits in confinement, and attempted to raise them. I found it exceedingly difficult to entice them to open their bill in order to feed them. They were sullen and cross, nay, three died in a few days; but the others, having been fed on grasshoppers forcibly introduced into their mouths, were raised. In a short time they began picking up the grasshoppers thrown into their cage, and were fully fed with cornmeal, which they preferred eating dry. Their whole employment consisted in attempting to escape from their prison, regularly demolishing one every two days, although made of pine boards of tolerable thickness.”

He was not overly impressed with their woodpecker-ish behaviour.

In the morning after receiving water, which they drank freely, they invariably upset the cup or saucer, and although this was large and flattish, they regularly turned it quite over. After this they attacked the trough which contained their food, and soon broke it to pieces, and when perchance I happened to approach them with my hand, they made passes at it with their powerful bills with great force. I kept them in this manner until winter. They were at all times uncleanly and unsociable birds. On opening the door of my study one morning, one of them dashed off by me, alighted on an apple-tree near the house, climbed some distance, and kept watching me from one side and then the other, as if to ask what my intentions were. I walked into my study: –the other was hammering at my books. They had broken one of the bars of the cage, and must have been at liberty for some hours, judging by the mischief they had done.”

He then allowed the last surviving bird to escape, his experiment complete.

The Pileated Woodpecker is North America’s largest surviving woodpecker, just a bit smaller than the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Pileated numbers appear to be stable, except in the state of Arkansas, where they are decreasing. Oddly enough, it is in Arkansas in 2004 that an Ivory-bill was claimed to be seen, but there is no conclusive evidence to uphold this claim. Close examination of the sasquatchian-like video footage seems to show it may have been an Ivory-bill, but others claim it was just a Pileated. More reports of Ivory-bills also came from Florida in 2006, but this has also not been confirmed.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, hand-colored engraving by James Audubon. Male on the left, female on the right. Date between 1827 and 1838 Source Birds of America (Wikipedia)

(Note: on September 29, 2021, the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that 23 species from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) be delisted due to extinction. The Ivory-billed woodpecker is included on this list.)

The Pileated Woodpecker seems to be under no threat at this time. However, they are dependent on large tracts of mature woodland, which makes their population easily threatened by logging practices.

Dryocopus pileatus (Linnaeus) Cornell University

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

James Audubon’s Pileated Woodpecker

University of Alberta. Pileated Woodpecker Habitat Ecology in the Alberta Foothills (pdf)

NB. This is a refurbished post from my defunct blog, Voyages Around My Camera, February 2010.

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