When I was in fourth grade, I was assigned a project and presentation on the state of Indiana, where I spent most of my growing-up years. Since I was a budding nature geek, I decided on natural history as a topic and made a big poster board display with various species and ecosystems found around the state. My mom suggested I include the pileated woodpecker on there as an example of a rare species, to point out the importance of conservation and habitat loss. I found a photo of one in a magazine and dutifully clipped it out and Mod-Podged it onto my display board. I remember my mom telling me that seeing a pileated woodpecker was a notable and unlikely event. My counselors at the National Wildlife Federation's summer camp and the naturalists at my arboretum summer classes told me the same thing. And I spent the rest of my childhood out in the woods looking for one in vain.
That was in 1976. Fast forward about 10 years, when I saw my first pileated flying through the trees in a cemetery in eastern Indiana. It wouldn't let me get very close, but it still felt like I'd sighted a unicorn and I figured this was a one-off experience. Well, I was certainly wrong about that.
Pileated woodpeckers are one of the great comeback stories of the 20th century. As the Eastern forests began to grow back from being cut over in the 19th and early 20th century, these intriguing birds have also grown in numbers. Unlike their most-likely-extinct cousins the ivory-billed woodpecker, they have adapted to habitat change and the presence of humans to become one of the most visible and audible birds in both the wilderness and suburban backyards. They're about the size of a crow, with a striking red crest and black and white striping on the face (males also have a red facial stripe). They're especially visible in flight, when their bright white underwings are visible as they bob up and down with their wingbeats.
My old Golden Field Guide bird book describes them as “Uncommon...a wary bird of extensive deciduous or mixed forests.” While they aren't exactly tame, they're now unwary enough to come to suet feeders three feet from the house and eyeball the cats that are watching them through the window, and they make residential areas part of their large territories. I've seen them in yards on Third Street in Ashland. They have a loud, piping call that reminds me of a cartoon monkey, and the drumming of their bills on wood can be heard at least a kilometer away.
While they like suet feeders and can decimate a full feeder in a day or two, they really need standing dead timber for both their diet and their nesting needs. If you ever see large excavations in a dead tree or stump, they were probably made by a pileated. They will occasionally share these cavities with bats! Pileateds also will use large nest boxes; you can attract them by packing them with sawdust so they can excavate it themselves. Their diet consists of wood-burrowing insects like carpenter ants (and yes, they will peck on your wood siding in search of dinner) and other insects, grubs and fruit. I've seen them sitting awkwardly on the ground eating earthworms that came up after a lawn watering. They're monogamous and if you have them around your house, you're probably seeing the same pair due to their large, well-guarded territories.
Pileated woodpeckers are non-migratory and live mostly in the Eastern U.S., Canada and the Pacific Northwest. But I've seen and heard them in areas where they don't show up on their range maps: the Colorado Rockies, southeastern Wisconsin, and east central Indiana where I saw my first one. I hope this means that they are continuing to expand their range and adapt to new challenges. Sadly, they and other species will need to learn how to live around humans and in changing habitat and climate. So far, the pileated woodpecker is overcoming these obstacles, and I enjoy having them as my neighbors.
Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles in Ashland County. She can be reached at email@example.com.