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It’s in your nature: Pileated woodpecker, the avian Paul Bunyan

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    This male depicts the typical color pattern with bright red crest, white stripe and note the bill size. Remember how important woodpeckers are at creating cavities for others such as screech owls or flying squirrels. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    A male pileated woodpecker, identified by its red cheek patch, used this utility pole for his hammering to attract a female’s attention. Note the bill and claw sizes.

Published August 03. 2018 07:40PM

The largest of North America’s woodpeckers, the pileated woodpecker can reach a length of 16.5 inches. As a comparison, the crow is about 17.5 inches. Even the northern flicker, a locally common woodpecker, barely reaches a foot. “Pileateds” have a bright red crest, basically an all-black body, with a white eye line.

As a youngster I knew Pennsylvania hosted these birds but didn’t see one until I was 10 or 12 years old. They were not very common. Extensive timbering throughout Pennsylvania before the ’50s and ’60s limited the number of larger trees needed for such a large woodpecker to make its nest cavities.

Obviously, a crow-sized woodpecker needed older forests. Over the past 25 years they seem to be everywhere. Our forest trees have matured and these birds have recovered. Unfortunately, the larger forest trees and canopies leave little sunlight for the forest saplings to grow, and deer and grouse populations as a result have suffered.

Pileated woodpeckers’ favored food is carpenter ants. However, beetle grubs under the bark will not be “turned down.” It may surprise you to know that you can commonly see them on the ground hammering away at a fallen tree trunk to get to the ants. They do also chop away at standing trees to find their food.

They have a methodical and loud hammering to quickly dig out large amounts of usually dead or dying tree, much like a carpenter using a chisel, or an axman chopping through a log in a logging competition

You can distinguish pileated woodpecker’s nest cavities and feeding holes by their general rectangular shape. Most of the other woodpeckers dig more rounded holes in the tree trunks.

You can identify a flying pileated woodpecker at a distance by its large size and its slow wingbeat or two, a short pause, and another powerful slow wingbeat again. Actually all woodpeckers fly in this undulating pattern, but the smaller species have shorter, faster wing beats.

Pileateds often make a strikingly loud cackle when they take off from a tree, sometimes in flight, and again as they alight on another tree. Once you heard them you will probably remember what bird to associate it to.

In breeding season, the males will often go back to the same tree or even a utility pole to hammer and hopefully gain a female’s attention. The male that courses back and forth between woodlots at my home chose a utility pole a number of mornings to do his hammering. In some rural areas, these males have actually weakened the wooden cross arms from this.

The pileated woodpecker nests once a year, and like many cavity nesting birds, chooses a nest hole site facing south or southeast. Both mates excavate the cavity, which could actually be about 2 feet deep. Remember earlier I noted the nest trees needed to be large. Picture four young woodpeckers (nearly crow sized) jammed in a cavity until they are developed enough to fly. Both parents brood and feed the young.

They crave ants and grubs, but my October and November days sitting in “Penn’s Woods” have given me many opportunities to see them gobble up wild grapes, poison ivy berries, persimmons and other vine fruits. It is very comical watching such a large bird trying to inch its way onto a thin branch to reach the last fruit.

Nature Reminder: Start noting that most of the robins are now gone from your yards, swallows are gathering on utility lines, and you’ll now see chicory, joe pye weed and fall flowers blooming.

Praying mantises are now large enough to be noticed in your shrubbery or gardens. Which is larger, the male or female?

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A snake “sticks out” its forked tongue to allow it to smell.

Contact Barry Reed at

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