Wild Profile: Meet the pileated woodpecker

A pileated woodpecker clinging to a thin branch in winter By MTKhaled mahmud/Shutterstock

If you only aim to photograph one woodpecker this winter, make it the pileated woodpecker. Like its relatives (the hairy and the downy woodpeckers), it has no separate breeding or winter range, and stays put year-round. If you lure it out into the open—try suet feeders—the shy pileated woodpecker is easy to ID. It has a knife-sharp bill that’s longer than an eagle’s, and a bright red crest that sticks straight up in the air. Males have a red forehead and “moustache”; on females, these markings are black.

Where do pileated woodpeckers live?

These cavity-nesting birds usually stick to the same territory from one season to the next, sometimes re-using a nest hole they’d carved out (Mom and Dad working as a team) earlier that year. For winter, a pileated woodpecker will chisel out a separate roosting hole. If this woodpecker is easy to identify, it’s almost as easy to spot a tree that it’s been feasting on. Thanks to that dagger-like beak, it can carve holes as large as a foot long and four inches wide. The excavation damage leaves piles of wood splinters the size of crayons at the base of the tree. A pileated woodpecker targets a tree infested with insects, mostly carpenter ants. Woody’s hearing is so sharp that it can detect the ant colony rustling inside the heart of the tree.

Why does that pileated woodpecker keep drumming!?

Although Woody will drum, in loud, resonating “rolls” year-round, you’ll most likely notice the sound in late winter and early spring. This is when males drum twice per minute, hoping to attract females. They also produce a high, chirping call.

A persistent pileated woodpecker can turn into a cottage pest if it won’t stop pounding on the knots in cedar siding, or if it keeps hammering away on a metal chimney. (So! Loud!) But if a male is banging away on your stove pipe to establish territory and call to the ladies, take heart that this noise should taper off in the summer, when it’s no longer breeding season. And if he’s going after your cottage’s exterior wood? Well, at least he’s alerted you to a possible ant infestation.

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