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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Pileated Woodpecker Day!

The pileated woodpecker is an amazing bird and once you hear its drumming or call it is doubtful that you will forget it.  The cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, although supposedly inspired by an acorn woodpecker, has many of the characteristics of a pileated woodpecker in both its laugh, which resembles the call, and the physical characteristics, especially its flaming red crest. 

The pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, is the largest woodpecker currently in North America.  The ivory-billed is larger, but almost certainly extinct.  Pileated woodpeckers are about the size of a crow, black with a white striped head and neck, a distinctive triangular bright red crest and a long and chisel-like bill.  The males have a red “mustache” – a stripe of red along their cheek stripe and females have a black forehead.  In flight look for prominent white underwings and an undulating flight pattern.  Length is about 18″ and wingspan 26-30″.  The oldest know pileated woodpecker was at least 12 years 11 months.

There are more than 180 species of woodpeckers worldwide.  Other woodpeckers you might see in this area include downy, hairy, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers as well as northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

During the 18th and 19th century with the clearing of mature forests the pileated woodpeckers became rare in eastern North America.  Since the beginning of the 20th century the numbers have increased.  It seems they are adapting to living in close to proximity to humans in second growth forests, although they still rely on large standing dead trees and fallen logs. 

In search of their preferred food, carpenter ants, pileated woodpeckers will excavate rectangular holes that can be a foot or more long.  They have a sticky tongue that is more than 5″ long and is used to lap up hundreds of ants at a time.  Their diet may consist of 60% carpenter ants, they also eat beetle larvae and other insects.  About 25% of their diet is wild fruits, berries and nuts. 

A woodpecker drums on a tree to find food, attract a mate, defend a territory or build a nest.  The nest construction in dead trees, and dead branches in live trees, is completed by both sexes in  3-6 weeks.  It is rarely used for more than one year.  Nest cavities of pileated woodpeckers are oblong versus circular like other woodpeckers. 

Three to five white eggs are laid and both males and females incubate the eggs and regurgitate insects to feed the young.  Incubation is for 15-18 days and the young will fledge, leave the nest, 26-28 days after hatching.  Fledglings remain with their parents for 2-3 months.  Pileated woodpeckers are non-migratory and pairs stay together on their territory year-round.

Scientists have studied the heads and brains of woodpeckers and their findings have inspired protective equipment like football helmets and bike helmets.  While drumming the pileated woodpecker hits the tree at 25 mph with a force on its head of 1,440 g’s – 14x the force that would trigger a concussion in a human.   To protect their brain the woodpecker has a few attributes that help dampen the blow including an enlarged brain case, a specialized beak and skull that redirects pressure from the head,  and built in shock absorbers consisting of frontal bones in the skull that are folded at the base of the bill along with stabilizer muscles.   Even its tongue, when not being used to lap up insects, serves as a cushion.  The tongue remains inside its head and wraps around the back of its skull curling all the way around to the eyes.  Recent research has found that woodpecker do have a build-up of a protein linked to neurodegenerative conditions in humans, but could not conclude if this had any negative impact in birds, more research needs to be done. 

To help ensure that the population will continue to increase and that today and future generations will have the opportunity to see and hear these amazing creatures next boxes are being built.  The nest boxes are packed tightly with sawdust so woodpeckers can excavate a nest.  Although pileated woodpeckers don’t have a long history of using next boxes, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has nest box plans if you would like to become involved in this project. 


Pileated Woodpecker Nest Box

All About Birds – Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker – Photos and Videos

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