Grays Harbor Birds — Pileated Woodpecker

Those of us of a certain age are sure to look at this photo by Gregg Thompson and cannot help but think of Woody Woodpecker; the youngsters will not even know that name, as the Lantz Studios closed him down in 1972. If you are one of the youngsters, go look him up.

Those who have been fortunate enough to see one of these outrageously colorful birds in action on a tree can attest to their proficiency at making the chips fly; they would be fierce competitors at Logger’s Playday. One of the hardest points to make about required bird habitat is to allow a few snags to stand in areas away from structures. Not only does a woodpecker need that kind of wood, but former woodpecker nesting holes are then used by many other birds and mammals.

Here are a few more facts and interesting tidbits about this amazing bird.

Size: 16 1/2 inches tall, with a wingspan of 29 inches, and weighing approximately 10 ounces.

General Description: The Pileated Woodpecker is crow-sized and is the largest woodpecker in North America. It is mostly black, with bold white stripes down the sides of the neck, and onto the shoulder, under the chin, and the inner-wings. A black line runs across the eyes, and a bright red, triangle-shaped crest really gets your attention. Males have red moustachial stripes while the female’s are black. In flight, there is also a bit of white visible at the wrist in the upper wings. The bill is long and very sturdy, about the same length of the head.

Habitat: This woodpecker can be found in any type of forest, evergreen, deciduous, and mixed, as long as there are trees large enough for roosting and nesting. In western Washington they prefer Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar. They use dead trees and downed logs for feeding stations like our yard birds use our feeders.

Behavior: One of the characteristics of this bird is the loud drumming sound they make chipping out a rectangular hole in a tree or log. It can be heard for long distances, as can their loud “whinnying” call. They have long necks so they can pull far back from the tree then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, even pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow. Their excavations go deep inside the wood, following the trails of their prey, and they leave an impressive pile of chips at the foot of the tree, stump, or log. They roost in hollow trees with multiple entrances.

Diet: The favorite food of Pileated Woodpeckers is carpenter ants, closely followed by any wood-boring beetle larvae, termites, spruce budworm, flies, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. They also eat wild fruits such as hackberry, blackberries, sumac berries, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. They even visit backyard feeders for nuts, seeds and suet.

Nesting: Pileated Woodpeckers form long-term, monogamous pairs that stay on territory year-round. While the male excavates most of the nest, the female makes the finishing touches of the oblong-shaped nest hole. They work inside the cavity, removing most of the woodchips, but leave some as nesting material. Nest construction can take from 3 to 6 weeks, and the 10 to 24 inch cavity is not re-used by the same pair. Both birds incubate 3 to 5 eggs for about 18 days, then brood the young for the first 7 to 10 days after they hatch. They regurgitate food for the young. The young leave the nest at 24 to 28 days but may stay with the parents for another 2 to 3 months learning to forage for themselves.

Migration Status: These birds don’t migrate but they sometimes move downslope or into the river bottom forest-lands and suburban areas in the winter. That’s when you might see them at your suet feeders.

Conservation Status: The population of Pileated Woodpeckers seems to have increased in the west over the last several decades. While clear-cutting of old growth and other forests has a significant impact on their habitat, they are fairly adaptable, which offsets some of the impact from habitat loss. Still, they are currently candidates for endangered species listing with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and are considered a species-at-risk.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Pileated Woodpeckers rely on large, standing dead trees and fallen logs, something most property managers may consider undesirable. So look for these birds in large tracts of land where the trees are not managed-looking, perhaps in a wetland area where the trees are often standing in water. Listen for their drumming, and look for the large rectangular holes and piles of chips at the base of a tree or stump. And look for that impossibly bright-colored body and head; it’s a sight you won’t forget.


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