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We're talking about the Pileateds of course, which can be pronounced either of two ways depending on where you are from I guess. I pronounce it as pill-ee-ated with a short i sound but others call it a pile-ee-ated, with a long I sound. I don't think the woodpeckers care which way we say it.


 I love woodpeckers and we are very lucky here in mid Missouri to have six different species that make this area their home and one other that visits our state briefly on it's migration journey twice a year. All are fascinating birds and I enjoy each and every one, but without a doubt, and on several levels, the Pileateds are in a class of their own. I've even heard that the most famous woodpecker of all, Woody, was inspired by none other.

If you want to read more about these marvelous birds, join me on the other side and we'll explore their world together.

To begin with they  are big, very big. My various field guides shows measurements ranging from 15 to 19 1/2 inches long. It is the biggest woodpecker in North America with the possible exceptions of the Ivory Bills and Imperials, which sadly, are both probably already extinct.

They are truly beautiful birds, dressed in their velvety black tux complete with white trimmings, a tiny touch of yellow, and topped off by a brilliant red headdress. The two sexes are easily distinguished from one another by the fact that the male's red cap starts right at the base of it's bill while the female's begins further back on her brownish forehead. And the male has a red mustache while the female sports a black one. The two following pics show these differences.



It's not much of a surprise that our biggest woodpecker would also be our loudest one. The volume of their voice probably helps them to keep in touch with each other over their large territories which I've read can range from a hundred and fifty to an incredible four thousand acres. They are quite vocal and their kuk kuk kuks and woick woick woicks are a familiar sound in the hardwood forests that surround our home here in the foothills of the Ozarks. The pitch, tempo, and volume of these sounds vary a great deal. I wanted to embed some audio clips of their various calls but was unable to figure out how to do that but if you'd like to hear them this link will take you to a page that opens very quickly, with several different pileated calls plus some drumming sounds. It has all of the sounds that I've heard from pileateds here except for one which I find hard to describe. It bares little resemblance to any of their other calls and is a much softer sound, one that would not carry any distance. The low, low volume and softness of it makes me think of it as being some kind of intimate exchange between mates. That may just be the thoughts of the romantic in me, but I do believe it.  I don't yet speak or understand woodpecker, ( I'm working on it) but listening to them it is obvious to me they are doing more than just making random noise. Check out that link above if you have the time and listen to them and I think you'll agree.


Besides their voice, they also communicate with each other through their drumming. In some studies it has been noted that woodpeckers respond more strongly to recordings of drumming sounds made by their own species than of other species, indicating that the drum's cadence contains information for species recognition. I hear woodpeckers drumming almost every day of the year and though I still can't distinguish the rat a tat tat of a redbelly from a redheaded, downy, flicker, or hairy, the much more deliberate drumming of the pileateds is easily identified, and with both the rate and volume characteristically slowing down towards the end they should be fairly easy for most people to identify. And the power that they put into their drumming makes them quite loud and the sound carries much further than the smaller species. If I can tell the difference even with my evolutionary dulled hearing, it's easy to believe that the woodpeckers could do so quite naturally.


Just about everything I've read about them mentions that carpenter ants are their favorite foods. One article I read said that they made up over 60% of their diet. They find these by boring into tree trunks and then using their long tongues to reach in and snatch the exposed ants. But their full diet is a wide variety of things, ranging from various grubs and other insects which they also excavate from within the tree trunks and from under the bark to many different types of fruit and nuts. I have watched them grasp and remove large sections of loose bark in their effort to reach the bugs hiding underneath. They are quite adept at doing this.  At the feeders ours definitely prefer the suet blocks but they also opt for the sunflower seeds occasionally. At times I've seen them foraging on the ground much like I see the flickers doing quite often. So far I have never seen one at the bird baths or the yard ponds so I guess they are getting their water in one of the nearby creeks.


Their large powerful beak serves them well in their search for food but they also have other tools which are just as important. As the video above shows, they clearly put a lot of force into their hammer like blows and that requires that they have an extremely solid grip on the tree itself. The powerful muscles in their neck, legs and feet supply the necessary force while a set of claws that rival those on a bird of prey enable the bird to maintain it's grip on the tree. They have what are called zygodactyl feet, which simply means that two toes point forward and two point backwards, which aid them in clinging to the sides of trees. They are quite capable of climbing to the top of the tallest trees in the forest with an ease that is astonishing for such a large bird.

 I have watched them dangling upside down from the tips of tiny branches, swinging and swaying like black and white pendulums as they gleaned the tree tops for insects and/or fruit. Watching them it appears that they do this effortlessly. The tail feathers are another important part of their wood boring abilities. They are stiffer and stronger than their wing feathers and are used by the birds as a stabilizer which they brace against the tree for support as they thrust their beaks into the wood. Nature never left out a thing when she designed this magnificent creature.



They are tremendous wood borers and in any forest that has them you can find evidence of that fact. They will literally shred old trees and stumps in their search for the ants and grubs that live within. Just one of the important roles they play in the forest is their help in breaking down the nutrients stored in the wood and making them available to plants and other animals. I'm borrowing this photo from Polly Syllabic, who was kind enough to give me permission, to show you a wonderful example of the work that they do. Thanks Polly. Great pic.


Here is a great video of a male as he bores out a cavity in search of ants. There are a lot of pileated videos on youtube but I love this one because it very clearly shows the thrust that they put behind that chisel like beak as they hammer their way into the wood. Towards the end, the video goes into slow motion and gives you a real sense of the power involved.

Watching that video, or any woodpecker you happen to see hammering away, you might wonder why they don't knock themselves out or at least give themselves a major headache with all that head banging, and I've wondered the same thing. I found out that some woodpeckers are capable of hammering their beaks into trees at the astonishing rate of 18 to 22 times per second, subjecting their brains to deceleration forces of 1200 g with each blow. Think about that for a moment. This is more than a hundred times what is required to give a football player a concussion according to some research done by the NFL. It's even more than the little black boxes on airplanes are designed to withstand during a crash. So how can these remarkable birds do this day in and day out without giving themselves severe head and brain damage?

Sang-Hee Yoon and Sungmin Park of the University of California-Berkeley were curious too.  Their  research found the birds’ anatomy acts to protect their brains in four ways.

Their beaks are hard but elastic; their skull bones are spongy; there’s very little room for fluid between the skull and brain, cutting down on vibrations; and they have a special structure called the hyloid layer, attached to the woodpeckers’ tongues to reduce vibration.

Further research is now being done which, it's hoped, will find a way to duplicate what nature has done and use those same shock absorbing characteristics in some not quite so natural ways. The US Army and the NFL have both expressed interest in helmets designed with those characteristics. It isn't difficult to imagine many other areas where this technology could and probably will be used if it proves doable.

Besides boring into trees in search of insects they also excavate holes in dead trees that they use for roosting during the night time hours and during extreme weather conditions. They normally pick large, dead, and hollow trees for roost trees, which differ from nest trees in having not one but several holes, the purpose of which are probably escape exits in the event that their slumber is disturbed by a prowling predator such as a raccoon or mink.


Although they usually pick dead trees for their roost sites, they commonly choose living trees when it comes time to excavate a nest.  They tend to pick nesting trees that have some amount of early heart wood decay going on inside them. It's unknown why they do this but the still living trees are sturdier and thus less likely to fall over during the nesting season than one long dead, so whether by design or some other reason, it has definite benefits.


They begin their nest site by excavating a large hole, with the opening about three and a half inches across with the length commonly being a bit longer, giving their hole a characteristic oblong or rectangular shape. Once the entrance hole suits them they continue on inside the tree where they excavate the nest itself which is usually a foot or more in depth and large enough to hold several growing youngsters. A cavity this size takes a considerable amount of time and effort to excavate so it was a surprise to me to learn that they only use this hole one time. The following year they start all over in a completely different tree. As strange as this is, it's great news for a lot of other species of birds and other animals which although they too use cavities, aren't capable of making them by themselves. Squirrels, opossums, owls, tree nesting ducks, and many species of smaller birds take advantage of last years nest cavities. The fact that they are often made in still living trees means that the nest cavities will be available to the other species for many years to come.  Here is a good example of an old nest site that was made in a living tree several years ago. Enough time has passed since this hole was excavated that the tree has had time to partially heal the wound and is slowly closing the hole. In the meantime it's a rent free deluxe apartment for whoever finds it to their liking, in this case, judging from the leaves that have been stuffed inside, I'd guess is most likely a squirrel.


 Once the nest cavity is completed the female lays from three to five white eggs which will be incubated for 15-16 days by both parents.When I first heard that both parents shared in the incubation I was a bit doubtful because in the spring our female completely disappears for several weeks and I had long assumed that was because she was doing all the egg sitting. But a little googling that day told me that it was indeed true. But while researching material for this diary I may have found the reason behind our females absence during that period. I read that while they do both share the incubating duties, the female usually does so during the day with the male taking over at night. That would explain her absence at the feeders but at the same time raises yet more questions. When and how does she eat? I suppose the occasional ant or beetle will inadvertently wander into the nest cavity and provide a bit of a snack but I can't imagine that happening often enough to supply her daily nutritional needs. So does the male bring feed to her as happens in some other bird species? Or does she slip out for short periods of time to snatch quick bites during the day, quickly returning before the eggs have time to cool too much? The only other alternative that I can think of is that she forages during the night which is highly unlikely. So far I haven't found any other information on that but will keep looking. If anyone knows the answer, I'd love to know. But regardless of who sits on the eggs, or when they do it, once they hatch, the male and female both feed the nestlings. After three to four weeks the young will leave the nest, although they will stay with the parents until fall, learning the ins and outs of their world before setting off on their own.

Short update on the egg sitting duties. I just found a video that shows the male and female trading places with each other at a nest site said to have eggs within it, but it doesn't say what time of day it was so I'm still looking for more information.


I mentioned the probable extinction of both the Imperials and the Ivory Bills. There is still a thin possibility that they may exist in some remote forest but even in the unlikely event of that being true, the  prospects of their continuing survival are very small. The major reason for their initial decline was the destruction of their habitat which is still happening today all over their original range. When you compare the Pileateds with either of those species you can't help but see that they are very similar birds which would seem to have similar requirements so I was happy to read that the Pileateds seem to be doing just fine over most of their range, even expanding in some. I can't explain that, since old growth forests are few and far between, even here in Missouri, and even where they do exist they are for the most part, small broken tracts. But somehow the Pileateds have adapted better than their cousins to the south and seem to be doing just fine. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that will continue. Their loss would be heart breaking to all of us who know and love these big beautiful  birds, and also an immeasurable loss to the entire ecosystem of the forests in which they play a significant role.


I don't remember exactly how old I was when I first started feeding birds but I  remember watching them through my bedroom window as a pretty small boy so a good guess would put it around fifty five years ago, give or take a couple. Outside of a few years in the military, I've never stopped and today, depending on the season and the weather, we tend anywhere from four to eight feeders, year round.  A little over three and a half years ago, we were thrilled when, for the first time in all those years, a big male Pileated showed up at the feeders one day and decided to stay. He was very skittish for a long time and would fly off in an instant if we opened the back door or even if we got to near the window where he could see us. It was a painfully slow process but eventually he got tame enough that today he often comes into the feeders even when we are sitting out on the porch a few feet from the feeder setup. As long as we don't make any sudden movements he will stay and eat his fill.


It was just him for several months until one day he showed up with a beautiful female. For  a long time she would land on the power pole in the backyard and just watch things by cautiously peeking around the pole every now and then. But I guess that watching her mate gobble down the suet blocks day after day finally became more than she could stand and one fine day  she too came on in to take advantage of the free meals. But to this day she is still much more skittish and nervous than the male.  And she doesn't visit us nearly as often as the male either, only showing up two or three times a week in comparison to the big male who usually visits us several times every day, especially in the winter.  The increase in winter time visits probably has to do with the higher calorie requirements due to the cold temperatures, at a time with fewer available insects and other bugs.


Every summer we would watch hopefully for them to bring their fledglings  into the feeders but they never did. But this past fall, in October, we had two new birds show up one day,both of them males, not at the feeders, but on the power pole in the yard, where they seemed to be playing some kind of woodpecker game in which they first worked their way all the way up, and then back down, the pole, always on opposite sides, stopping every foot or so to peek around the pole at each other. I would have thought it might be some kind of mating ritual but for the fact that both birds were male and I believe, though I'm not positive, that they were both immature birds.  Whatever it was they were doing it was very interesting watching them and I couldn't help but wonder whether or not they were the offspring of our pair. They played pole tag for several minutes and then both flew off into the woods. I didn't see either of them again for a few weeks and had about given up hope of seeing them again, but they did eventually come back and I'm happy to report that one of them has now become a regular visitor here. The second one now appears to have moved on, either that or it is absolutely identical to our old resident male and I can't tell them apart.


I'm still not sure if the parents of those two are the pair we've been seeing all along or if they are unrelated. One of the two playing pole tag that day had some unusual and distinctive markings on his back and since that time he has molted out and the markings have become bolder and more extensive, so I am thinking that he was undergoing his first molt when I first saw him. So that leads me to believe that they were indeed young birds and in that case most likely the offspring of our pair. But that's all conjecture and I could easily be wrong. It's puzzling that I've never seen any interaction between them, neither fledgling/parent behavior, nor anything like territorial aggression. As near as I've been able to tell they seem to completely ignore each other even when they are at the feeders.


I read that the young birds normally stay with the parents until sometime in September and then disperse to establish a territory of their own, so the scenario here doesn't seem to fit the norm. It's puzzling that our old pair never brought any fledglings in to the feeders over the years. If it's normal for the young birds to stay with the parents until September then why did we never see them together, until just recently, if in fact the new birds were raised by our pair? Very fascinating and I would love to know what is going on. It will be interesting to see what takes place next spring when breeding season rolls around. I am afraid that too many males in one area is going to cause some problems and we may end up losing one or more of our birds. But who knows, maybe the new unattached bird will find a mate of his own and we will have two mated pairs. Wouldn't that be something!


Having pileateds at our feeders is a wonderful gift and we feel extremely lucky to have them. Frosting on the cake is that one of them is such an unusual and unique bird. I looked through pages and pages of pileated pics on google images and found no others with plumage like his. I did find one, and only one, that had somewhat similar markings but the brown was much duller and there wasn't nearly as much of it. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a form that you can report unusual or rare birds on and I submitted pics of this bird to them. They sent me an email remarking that it was indeed a very unusual bird and thanked me for submitting it. They said they might want to use it on their web site someday and asked permission to do so which I gladly gave them.

For anyone wanting to read more about these marvelous birds, this pdf file is one of the  most informative that I found while researching this diary. It was produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Pacific Northwest Research Station. It may be of particular interest to those of you in the Pacific northwest although it contains information relative to other areas as well.

As in most of my diaries of late I share the photography credits with Mrs. burnt out, who shares my love of the birds and the rest of the natural world around us.

This will be my last diary before the New Year so I want to take this opportunity to thank all the great people I've met here for all the enjoyable conversations, laughs,and all that you've shared with me. It's been great and I've learned so much from everyone. And I also want to wish everyone a truly happy Christmas and many good things in the coming New Year. Thanks all!


Originally posted to Backyard Science on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 05:15 AM PST.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching and Headwaters.

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