Pileated Woodpeckers in the Woodlot
It’s almost quiet around here these days. We’ve passed the half way point of winter and the sun is up long enough to enjoy a little time outdoors before or after work. I’ve taken to the woods on snowshoe as well as cleated-boots to see what’s happening in the woodlot. It would be quiet if it weren’t for the sweet “chick-a-dee” and “phoebe” from the chickadees, nasally “yank-yank” from red breasted nuthatches, and the almost non-stop “wuk wuk wuk” from three pileated woodpeckers. Their volume matches their large bodies. “Wuk wuk wuk” from the trees over my head and off in the distance and as they’re flying. We have a resident pair of pileated woodpeckers as well as a third bird that’s spending the winter here.
Pileated woodpeckers have a 150 to 200-acre territory so owners of smaller woodlots won’t have many pairs. It isn’t unusual to have more than a pair in the area in winter but come spring the visitors will be driven away if they don’t leave on their own. One spring a few years ago, I dreamed of cutting down every big tree in the woodlot to get some peace and quiet while I worked in the garden. One female and two males make for a lot of verbal arguments and banging out of territory. Both males wanted to nest in a maple tree struck by lightning. Their territory dispute went on for nearly a week.
The largest of our woodpeckers, they stand 16 to 19 inches tall. Both male and female pileated woodpeckers have red caps. Look closely at the end of the bill, along the cheek for a red streak that indicates a male. In late April males begin the three to six-week process of excavating a nest. Females pitch in but males do most of that work. Males that are excavating will return to the same spot repeatedly making it clear that they aren’t simply hunting for ants, larva and other insects. Wood chips around the base of the tree area will most likely catch your eye before you see the nest. Pileated woodpeckers make a rectangular rather than round hole in large dead trees or large dead branches in live trees and sometimes in fallen trees. It’s important to leave standing deadwood for wildlife but if the tree is a hazard it can be removed when the young have fledged. They might roost in an old nest occasionally but seldom reuse them for nesting.
Pileated woodpeckers hatch and raise three to five offspring once a year. If you haven’t found a nest to watch (from a distance, of course) you might hear the young begging for food as you walk through the woodlot. They can be easily mistaken for a chattering red squirrel. If that squirrel doesn’t sound quite right, it’s probably woodpeckers. Their call is slower and raspier than the squirrel’s chattering. As the offspring grow and the nest becomes crowded you might watch them poking out of the opening.
For a Closer Look
I’ve read that you can encourage these woodpeckers to come to your feeding station by offering suet. I always have at least one suet hanging but have yet to see a pileated here. They land in the trees 25 feet away but show no interest in the feeders. Perhaps it’s too close to the house. If you’d like to get a good look at them you might try hanging suet in an open space in the woodlot. Have your camera ready – they’re obliging models!