The pileated woodpecker is an impressive bird in many ways.
A forceful reminder of this came at me the other day, when a pileated woodpecker appeared in front of my windshield. The bird was northbound along the Turtle River. I was eastbound on County Road 33. Our point of encounter was the bridge in Manvel, N.D.
It was not my first woodpecker sighting at this spot. The shores of the Turtle River and the town of Manvel provide what these birds want, which is extensive tracts of mature timber. So much the better if some of it is dead.
Midwinter is perhaps the most likely time to see pileated woodpeckers. The woods are less dense at this time of year, since the foliage is off the trees.
And the woodpeckers are less wary.
The past couple of decades have been good times for pileated woodpeckers. They’ve benefited from the spread of Dutch elm disease. This aids them in two ways. It provides food, in the form of the beetles that spread the contagion, and it kills elm trees. The woodpeckers turn dead elm trees into housing developments.
As a consequence, the number of pileated woodpeckers and the extent of their nesting range both have grown. In 1975, when his “Breeding Birds of North Dakota” was published, Robert E. Stewart reported nesting pileated woodpeckers along the Red River, and he suggested confidently that they also nested along the lower Sheyenne River in the southeastern part of the state. Adults had been seen elsewhere in the state during breeding season, he recorded. These, he said, “indicated possible breeding.”
The latest checklist of birds in Grand Forks County calls this woodpecker “unusual” throughout the year. Nesting has been confirmed. Sightings are regular, though they don’t happen every day.
We’ve even had pileated woodpeckers at our place west of Gilby, N.D., 24 miles west of the Red River. Probably, they followed the Turtle River westward and stumbled onto the crabapple tree in the yard.
The woodpeckers didn’t hang around. Not enough timber.
Still, this illustrates Impressive Thing No. 1 about pileated woodpeckers. They are an expanding species.
Impressive Thing No. 2 is how conspicuous the pileated woodpecker can be—and how obscure.
This is a big bird, the size of a crow. It might be possible, at a casual glance, to conclude the woodpecker was in fact a crow. That impression would be short-lived, though, as Impressive Things No. 3 and No. 4 became apparent.
In flight, the pileated woodpecker shows extensive patches of white in its broad wings. No crow would do this. In fact, no other predominantly black bird would do this.
Then there is the head. This is dramatic—and distinctly pointed.
Both sexes have a red crest, though this is more extensive in the male than the female. Both have a very large bill, which brings to mind a chisel. Or maybe an adz. It’s large.
And there are the facial stripes, alternating—from the bottom—white, red, black, white, black, white and then the red crest. Again, this describes the male. Females lack the red stripe on the cheek.
The neck seems almost serpentine, and pileated woodpeckers are capable of extending it or folding it back, which only augments the impression. It, too, is striped, black on the outside, both front and back, and white down the side.
This brings us to Impressive Thing No. 5, the incredible power of the bird.
The pileated woodpecker is capable of very rapid and very extensive excavation. A pileated woodpecker hard at work literally can make the chips fly, and they pile up at the base of the affected tree.
This creates quite a noise.
Woodpeckers are equipped especially for this sort of activity. Their body structure, bone and muscle, permits heavy blows without damage to internal organs.
We’ll number that Impressive Thing No. 6 about pileated woodpeckers.
Impressive Thing No. 7 is the voice. This has been described in various ways—loud, high-pitched, nasal and so on. The best way to appreciate the sound is to remember it was the inspiration for the voice of Woody Woodpecker.
It’s difficult to suggest exactly where to look for pileated woodpeckers. Most sightings are chance encounters—except for deliberate spying at nest sites, of course.
The birds forage fairly widely, and it’s not unusual to run into one in city parks in Grand Forks, along the Red River Greenway or even in residential neighborhoods.
They’re rather fond of hanging fruit, so they come to bushes holding berries through the winter. They also come to suet feeders.
All this in winter, of course.
Pileated woodpeckers are harder to find in breeding season, when they become quite secretive—the better to protect the prospects of the next generation of this impressive species.