Nov 1, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2017

Pileated Woodpecker: Woody Woodpecker is Alive!

Pileated woodpecker in the woods on an autumn morning. Loud, chopping blows herald the presence of a feeding pileated woodpecker.

A pileated woodpecker at my feeder! I was thrilled! Someone had given me a homemade suet feeder with a tail-prop design. A few months after hanging it in my yard (and keeping it continually stocked with suet), a pileated woodpecker showed up. My neighborhood was heavily forested with big, old trees, and I frequently heard their calls and occasionally saw them overhead and in the trees. Having one at my feeder was an exciting first.

My excitement turned to worry when I noticed his left foot dangling uselessly at his side. I wondered if I should try to capture him and take him to the local wildlife rehabilitation center. It was early January; how could he survive the winter "one-handed"?

Other than his dangling leg he seemed healthy and had no problem flying. He used his right foot, the stiff feathers of his tail, and his round breast to position himself at the feeder. He began stopping by several times a day. I suppose a filled suet feeder is fast food easily obtained for an injured woodpecker.

I know he was male because of his red moustache, which is black on female pileateds.

The word pileated derives from the Latin word for "cap," referring to its tall, red crest. Both male and female pileated woodpeckers sport a red crest; the female's forehead is brownish, and the male's is scarlet. A dull, dark charcoal-gray overall, pileateds reveal a large amount of white under the wing when they take flight. Seen crossing high over a road, their wingbeats are slow and steady, the wings seeming to close between each beat.

The call is a high, wild, yikyik-yik-yik-yik, similar to a flicker, but not as monotonous. The pileated, with its crazy laugh, was the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker.

Such a large bird—North America's largest woodpecker—needs large-diameter trees because it roosts and nests in cavities that it excavates with its chisel-like bill. Older-growth forests with standing dead trees are prime habitat.

A pileated woodpecker forages for food in a rotting log.

Dietarily, pileateds are generalists: They eat a variety of foods, including carpenter ants, beetle larvae, fruit and nuts. It is a surprisingly agile fruit-plucker, clinging like an overgrown chickadee as it eats small fruit. Pileateds also glean bark and branches for insect prey.

Loud, chopping blows herald the presence of a feeding pileated woodpecker. They sometimes sound not so much like a woodpecker as a strong person wielding an axe. Its hollow, sonorous drum roll fades away as it finishes. Palm-sized pieces of bark and punky (soft and rotted) wood fly as the bird strips bark or excavates to reach ant galleries and beetle larvae.

Pileateds are resident throughout their range—they don't migrate. In autumn, wandering pileateds may show up unexpectedly along roadsides and in yards, feasting on sumac, firethorn, dogwood, viburnum, or other fruits.

Most pileated pairs stay together year-round, and presumably mate for life. Males do most of the nest cavity excavation, which can take from three to six weeks. The female lays four eggs late in the spring, and she and her mate take turns incubating during the day. At night, incubation is the male's responsibility. Eggs hatch after about 16 days, and nestlings are fed regurgitated insects. A parent inserts its bill into the throat of its nestling; the young bird jerks its head and sucks while its parent regurgitates.

A pileated woodpecker peeks out from its nest. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

The young woodpeckers remain in the cavity for up to 30 days—generally the month of June—and upon fledging, begin an apprenticeship (that lasts into September) of learning to procure food. Initially pileated families stick together, but as the flight skills of the young improve, all young may stay with both parents, or parents may split up, each taking some of young. Later in the fall, the young leave their parents and wander on their own until spring, when they begin searching for a mate and a nesting territory.

But back to the injured pileated in my yard. After a few weeks, I noticed that his injured leg was no longer dangling. He was bending it toward the feeder perch! In another week, one of his left claws was in the right place, but clearly it wasn't a strong grip. In a few more days, his left foot clung to the feeder apparently with the same grip as his right foot. He healed himself over the course of a frigid month with no human intervention—except for the provision of a reliable and easy food source.

As winter turned to spring, his visits became less frequent. I assume food was becoming easy for him to find elsewhere, or maybe he was a young bird, and it was time for him to find his own territory and a mate. I never again had a pileated woodpecker at my suet feeder but continued to spot them in my yard and neighborhood. Was it my guy, or one of his parents or siblings that I was seeing and hearing? I'll never know.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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