PILEATED WOODPECKER By John Swanson
These large and beautiful birds have been seen frequently along the Drive this winter. It is interesting to learn more about them.
The Pileated Woodpecker’s primary food is carpenter ants, supplemented by other ants, 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, sassafras blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. In some diet studies, ants constituted 40 percent of the diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals. Occasionally, Pileated Woodpeckers visit backyard bird feeders for seeds or suet.
Nest trees are typically dead and within a mature or old stand of coniferous or deciduous trees. The male begins excavating the nest cavity and does most of the work, but the female contributes, particularly as the hole nears completion. The entrance hole is oblong rather than the circular shape of most woodpecker holes. For the finishing touches, the bird climbs all the way into the hole and chips away at it from the inside. Periodically the adult picks up several chips at a time in its bill and tosses them from the cavity entrance. Pileated Woodpeckers don’t line their nests with any material except for leftover wood chips. The nest construction usually takes 3-6 weeks, and nests are rarely reused in later years. Cavity depth can range from 10-24 inches.
Bark Forager. Pileated Woodpeckers forage in large, dead wood—standing dead trees, stumps, or logs lying on the forest floor. They make impressive rectangular excavations that can be a foot or more long and go deep inside the wood. These holes pursue the tunnels of carpenter ants, the woodpecker’s primary food. The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae (which can be more than an inch long) or termites lying deep in the wood. When hammering into this soft wood, Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow. The sound is often audible as a heavy thunk, and large chips of wood collect on the ground below. Pileated Woodpeckers are monogamous and hold large territories; it’s rare to see more than two birds together at a time. When one member of a pair dies, the other often gains a new mate, and this is one of the main ways that new individuals get a chance to breed and hold a territory. Their flight is strong, but slow and slightly undulating; the wingbeats are deep but quick and somewhat unevenly paced.
Number of Broods
15–18 days Nestling Period 24–28 days
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless.