Dec 25, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Species Profile: Pileated Woodpecker

North America's largest common woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker is a magnificent, flashy, loud, but shy bird. The word "pileated" is Latin for "crested," a reference to this woodpecker's remarkable crest.
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Those who hold out hope for the potentially rediscovered 24-inch ivory-billed woodpecker term the 19-inch pileated the "largest commonly seen" woodpecker in North America. Its odd name is Latin for "crested," and may be pronounced with a long or short i (pill-lee-ate-ed or pie-lee-ate-ed). This slaty-black, white, and red crow-sized woodpecker is a powerful excavator, digging deep into standing or fallen dead wood as it makes its characteristic, rectangular chambers in search of wood-boring beetle larvae and carpenter ants. Three-quarters of its diet is insects, mostly ants; look for its cylindrical black-and-white droppings, composed largely of carpenter ant skulls, beneath trees where it has been working. In contrast to its squarish feeding holes, the pileated's nest hole is usually round or roughly triangular and is often excavated in a bleached, barkless dead stub. Four eggs are incubated by the male and female for 18 days. The young, somewhat duller, butch-crested versions of their mother, fledge at 24 to 30 days. They are dependent on their parents until fall, following them and learning to find food. Surprisingly light for their size, pileateds may be seen dangling, titmouse-style, in branches of grape, smilax, poison ivy, and sumac as they pluck fruit.

Quite flickerlike, the pileated's laughing call is louder, faster, and fades toward the end, avoiding the monotony of its smaller relative's long call. Its drum roll, too, builds, then fades toward the end. At nesting time, a variety of loud, flickerlike calls can be heard, especially a woik-woik yelp that is given near roost and nest holes.

Although it needs mature trees for nesting, the pileated forages frequently in younger, cutover and recovering forestland. As a species, it has adapted well to the ever-changing North American forest age structure, enjoying a rebound since many farms have been abandoned and allowed to grow over; it is now common where it was absent 50 years ago. A nonmigratory, monogamous permanent resident, pileated woodpeckers may make surprisingly bold forays into suburban yards for the fruit of ornamental plantings, or to large suet feeders that are well-anchored on trees near woodland edges. Birds thus lured in have also taken meat scraps, hamburger, cracked corn, and nutmeats.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »



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