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May 17, 2021

Return of Bird of the Week: Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker, McCall, Idaho
We have exhausted WC’s even marginally decent photos of Cracids – the Chachalacas, Curassows and Guans. So we’ll shift to woodpeckers, the Piciformes, and start with North America’s largest surviving woodpecker, the Pileated. In the late 1990s, WC was flyfishing for steelhead trout along the Situk River, in southeastern Alaska, near Yakutat. One early foggy spring morning, WC and a buddy set out across the water meadows east of the river, aiming upstream to get away from the crowd. From a stand of deciduous trees not far from the Forest Service road, WC heard a sound like a hatchet striking a tree, repeatedly, quickly. It was the unmistakeable sound of a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away on a tree to expose insects. But WC was chasing steelhead, didn’t have binoculars and didn’t want to keep his non-birding buddy waiting. So never tracked the bird down. The Pileated Woodpecker isn’t on the Checklist of Alaska Birds. More correctly, it is set out as “Unsubstantiated.” WC’s experience, dutifully reported to the Records Committee, is one of the “unsubstantiated” reports.
Male Pileated Woodpecker, Gold Fork, Idaho
The late, lamented Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a little larger. But today, in North America, this is the biggest woodpecker, approximately crow-sized. Yes, it is the basis of the animated cartoon, “Woody Woodpecker.” It’s a creature of mature, mixed forests. It’s a cavity nester, and it takes a big tree to accommodate a Pileated Woodpecker cavity (often the rotten heartwood of an old tree). It also needs old trees and decaying snags for the insectes it drills for and consumes. This is also a keystone species: the cavities it excavates are used by other birds and mammals. It helps accelerate the decay of old trees and snags. And they may have a role in forest health: they help control some forest beetle populations because their diet consists primarily of wood-dwelling ants and beetle larvae that are extracted from down woody material and from standing live and dead trees.
Female Pileated Woodpecker, Osceola National Forest, Florida
The species is sexually dimorphic: the female’s red crest is smaller, not extending all the way to the bill, and the female lacks the red “moustache” of the male. There are two subspecies. Noisy – some would say raucous – and fairly common, they are a signature bird of the north woods for WC. After a long period of poaching and mature forest destruction, the populations are recovering, making it a species of Least Concern. For more bird photographs, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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