What better way for a true winter lover to start a new year than with fresh snow coating the trees and birds in abundance at our feeders? New Year’s Day was especially memorable in the bird category because a glorious Pileated Woodpecker chose to visit our suet feeder right in the front yard. Mike excitedly called upstairs saying, “quick look out the window.” And there it was; in all its feathered glory.
Found mainly on the eastern half of the U.S., Pileated woodpeckers are about the size of a crow, measuring 16.5 to
19.5 inches in length. They weigh 10 ounces, which is nearly four times as much as a Hairy Woodpecker. Many people describe them as almost prehistoric in appearance and in a National Geographic article described research that showed the connections between fossils of dinosaurs to modern birds. Archeologists have discovered a way to recover melanosomes in well-preserved fossils. Found in the tails, back and other parts of dinosaur’s bones, these melanosomes (containing melanin) will soon allow paleo artists to paint whole feathered dinosaurs. One illustration in the article showed one creature with red, black and white feathers; a dead ringer for today’s Pileated.
Pileated woodpeckers have a striking plumage with a solid charcoal colored back, and white stripes running back from the beak across the face to the back of the neck and curving down the chest. But more than anything else, it is that flaming topknot of feathers that stops us in our tracks. As I watched the bird with binoculars I couldn’t decide how best to describe that red color – carmine, scarlet, blood? This woodpecker was a female, because the red crown began halfway back on its head. A male’s would stretch from the forehead all the way back to the point of the crown.
And it has a red ‘mustache’, (a strip of feathers leading back from the end of the beak) while the female has a black one.
The woodpecker was braced on the trunk of a pine tree by two strong, pointed tail feathers, making a tripod with the large black, sharp clawed feet, gripping the bark. This tail also helps brace the bird when it begins to hammer the inner hardwood of the tree. Trying to get at the small block of suet (the image on the package is that of a Pileated) that remained in the green metal cage feeder, the pileated reached in from beneath with its long, sharp bill and lightly poked the suet. A piece would dislodge and it would grab it. If the piece fell, it often landed on the bird’s foot or chest which was pressed against the trunk of the tree. Then it would just turn its head, reach down and pick up the crumb. Much like when food drops off our spoon or fork into our lap.
A strong northwest wind blew the birds back and chest feathers up and out, but still it focused on the fatty food. Finally, it grew tired of this task and flew in slow, deep flaps along the length of our front deck and landed at the top of the dead aspen tree. I have been saying we should cut this sad remnant down before it falls on the deck, but then I see a woodpecker perched on it, hammering away, either for food or to send out a territorial call and I decide to wait a little longer.
When I looked up at the trunk from my second story office window I could see that the Pileated has been here more
often than we realized, for there were huge excavations and holes encircling the topmost part. I was close enough to see with my bare eyes, but added binoculars and was able to see its hummingbird like tongue zipping out in a blur as it found some minute bit of insect larvae under the bark. A couple times it wiped its beak from side to side on the bark, as if to remove some annoying leftovers.
Using it’s beak as a lever it pried off pieces of bark and quickly pounded into the tree, tongue moving in and out. For the first time in my life I witnessed the incredible force of its beak slicing off thick slivers of wood and I was thankful that in my bird banding days I never had to handle one of these birds. I have held downy and hairy woodpeckers, less than half the size of this creature and they have drawn blood from blows of their beaks into my hand. The strike from a pileated, I have no doubt, would pierce a person’s hand clear through. What a marvel. What engineering in a living being.
When we thought the Pileated had flown away, Mike went outside to put a new suet block into the feeder on the pine tree. But the bird was on the other side of the trunk and they startled one another when the Pileated hopped around. It flew away, but returned later for more fresh suet. These woodpeckers will eat wild bird seed too, preferring the hulled sunflowers and shelled peanut varieties.
By Kate Crowley