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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The pileated woodpecker


Our little patch of God’s green earth is a wonderland for birders. We sit at the intersection of three important geographical areas: the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and the near location of the northern boreal forests. If we include the influence of Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding waters on bird migration patterns, it can’t get much better. We get all sorts of birds here, whether year-round residents, summer-only residents, or migrants. All of them are unique and wonderful to observe and learn about. And counted among my favorites is this month’s bird, the Pileated woodpecker.

Besides birding I also enjoy hunting, and tromping through the woods on a cool fall day is a great time to spot this huge, crow-sized woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers can be readily seen flying from tree to tree as you sit shivering in your deer blind. Though black like a crow and of similar size, this largest of all North American woodpeckers is easy to separate from ravens or crows by its lack of steady wing beats. 

If you are able to get near enough to a Pileated woodpecker to observe it with your binoculars or even your bare eyes, you’ll notice a bright red pointed cap. This cap is worn by both the male and the female, though the male’s red is more extensive and matched with a red “mustache.” Both sexes have marvelous zebra strips of black and white that extend from the shoulders up to the face. Otherwise the rest of the bird is black. However, note the prominent white under-wing patches and the smaller, broad white chevrons on the wing primaries. In certain light conditions these white markings are less obvious, but with a pair of binoculars they become bold and unmistakable. 

Another evidence of hunters or hikers finding themselves in Pileated woodpecker territory are distinctive rectangular excavations found in trees. These holes are very large, perhaps five or six inches long, a couple inches wide and a couple inches deep. They look man-made, but they are not. These neat diggings are caused by the Pileated woodpeckers hunting for beetle grubs and carpenter ants, their favorite prey. 

For the more practiced birder, the call of the Pileated woodpecker will remind him or her of the mating call of the Northern Flicker. They will also sound out a loud and rapid hammering against wood. But what is the most memorable call of these large dark forest denizens is a hysterical laughter that echoes from the tree tops in the spring. It may not be heard commonly, but it is unique and unforgettable. It sounds like a maniac loose in the forest. If you are unacquainted with this call, hearing it for the first time will cause you to look over your shoulder and maybe head for the truck. It still gives me the willies!  

The only bird that might be confused with the Pileated woodpecker is the even larger Ivory-billed woodpecker of the southern swamps. As this bird is probably extinct, the Pileated has been handed the title of the continent’s largest feathered boring tool. The next time you find yourself shivering in the woods, cold rifle in hand, wondering why the heck you took up deer hunting, take a peek at the tree tops and chances are you’ll spot the Pileated woodpecker bustling among the pines. It is a sight to behold. Happy birding!


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

outdoors, birding, pileated woodpecker, woodpecker

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