Today I spotted a woodpecker that we often hear around the farm, but seldom see. We have both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, that visit our suet feeders in winter, but the most elusive member of the woodpecker family prefers to stay concealed in the woods. The Pileated Woodpecker is so shy that if you do happen to catch a glimpse of it as it scales the tree trunks looking for insects, it will quickly disappear from sight by moving to the opposite side of the tree. I was lucky and got a couple of seconds to snap this picture (believe me, I have taken many pictures where all I got was a tree trunk or a shot of wings as it flew away!)
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. Look (and listen) for this crow-sized bird whacking at dead trees and fallen logs in search of their main prey, carpenter ants. Their excavations leave unique rectangular holes in the wood, which provide crucial shelter to many other species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.
The Pileated’s primary food is ants, supplemented by woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. They also eat wild fruits and nuts, including greenbrier, hackberry, sassafrass, blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. In some diet studies, ants made up 40 percent of the pileated diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals.
If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them alone as they may attract Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as other woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other insect-loving birds) to forage, roost, or even nest in them. We have a lot of dead standing hemlocks next to the creek that were attacked by an invasive hemlock-eating pest that came here from Japan. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid kills hemlocks by sucking the nutrients from the tree, killing it in as little as 3 to 5 years.
Pileateds are quite vocal, typically making a high, clear, series of piping calls lasting several seconds. The loud call is sometimes described as sounding like a far-carrying laugh. What else would you expect from this flamboyant, exotic-looking bird!