By Karen Nichols & Ben Long
Big, raucous and handsome, the pileated woodpecker is a favorite of hard-core birding enthusiasts and casual nature-lovers alike. The pileated woodpecker is the classic “Woody Woodpecker.” The word “pileated” refers to its bright red crest, its most distinguishing feature. The name may be pronounced either “PIE-leh-ated” or “PIL-eh-ated.”
The pileated woodpecker is the source of that loud, wild “jungle bird” sound, which reminds one of the soundtrack of an old Tarzan movie. Often, one will hear a pileated before it reveals itself visually. One summer morning I took part in a Flathead Audubon field trip at Lawrence Park, when we heard that characteristic call. By following the sound, we found not only the woodpecker itself, but a pileated chick nearly overflowing from a cavity in a standing dead birch. The call of the northern flicker, another common woodpecker, is somewhat similar and is sometimes confused. The call of the pileated woodpecker is louder but lower-pitched and descending. We focused on that distinction that morning in Lawrence Park.
Pileated woodpeckers are particularly special to Flathead Audubon, as they have been the chapter’s mascot for decades. Bigfork artist and cartoonist Elmer Sprunger put the pileated woodpecker on the chapter logo, featured on our newsletter, the Pileated Post.
Pileateds are found throughout the forested regions of northwestern Montana. During the nesting season, they are most often found along major rivers that host galleries of large black cottonwood trees. In the winter, they venture more broadly, seeking food. They are also found in the forests of the Pacific coastal mountains, the boreal forests of Canada and the upper Midwest and the hardwood forests of the eastern and southern states.
The largest common woodpecker in North America, with a length of 16 inches and a wingspan of 30 inches, pileated woodpeckers live up to 10 years in the wild. Their bodies are mostly black, but they have a white underwing that quickly distinguishes them from crows. But most telling is the bird’s head. Its neck and cheeks are white, with a white stripe over the eye. The jaunty red cap starts in the forehead, for the male, and continues through the crest. On females, only the rear half of the crest is scarlet. A careful eye can also distinguish males by a red “mustache” on the cheek. On both sexes, the beak is like a chisel. The birds use that beak to tear apart rotten trees, logs and stumps, seeking out their favorite morsel, the carpenter ant. Pileated woodpeckers also are fond of suet in backyard feeders, and also eat fruit such as crabapples in winter.
The pileated woodpecker excavates large, oblong holes unlike any other woodpecker, typically three inches wide by seven to nine inches long. Look for such holes in the trunks of black cottonwood and western larch, often the largest dead trees available. Pileateds excavate large cavities for nests. They are monogamous and share the work of building the nest and feeding young. Smaller birds, from chickadees and nuthatches, to larger saw-whet owls, wood ducks and goldeneyes, along with mammals such as northern flying squirrels, exploit the efforts of the industrious pileated woodpecker by using the nests and holes. Ecologists sometimes use the presence of pileated woodpeckers to gauge the health of a forest ecosystem.
Pileated woodpeckers are always a special treat to watch, but are relatively common in the Flathead Valley all year long. Local birders have seen them each of the 32 years of the annual Bigfork Christmas Bird Count.
These days, discussions of the pileated woodpecker often mention its larger cousin, the ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivory-billed is native to the Big Woods of the American Southeast and had been considered extinct by most experts, until one was allegedly captured on film in 2004. That ignited a debate between birders who believe the ivorybilled woodpecker is not extinct after all, and skeptics who believe the bird in the images is, in fact, a common pileated woodpecker. This debate will continue until there is more definitive evidence. In Montana, however, there is no doubt – if you see a big, beautiful, noisy, black woodpecker with a vivid red crest, it’s a pileated. Grab your binoculars and enjoy.