Dear Wood Folk,

If I wasn’t including a local woodpecker checklist (hence “and friends”) I would have titled this Architect of the Birds, or maybe Landlord if landlords weren’t so often loathed. Pileateds are kind of the bird version of beavers. The rectangular holes of various sizes that pileated woodpeckers make are utilized for food gathering and even moreso for shelter by dozens of other species! These include the likes of bats, flying squirrels, wood ducks and many other birds, and even fury friends like pine martens and raccoons. In some cases, at least with chimney swifts, they may even move in while a pileated is still roosting in the cavity. Roommates! Other woodpeckers also provide the same service but pileated woodpeckers have the most renters.

I still remember my first run in with Haliburton’s largest woodpecker. One flew right over my head and I could hear the swishing of its wings loudly. At first glace it looked like a crow and then I realized I was looking at Woody the Woodpecker:

Pileated woodpecker (male)
The red cheek stripe identifies this as a male Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker Plant Allies

When our forests were logged our pileated population plummeted, but since the woods have grown back their population has recovered. They love mature woods, whether deciduous or coniferous, they’re looking for lots of tall dead trees, fallen logs and stumps scattered throughout. They like to stake out perhaps a couple hundred acres for their territory, and will stay here year round. If you look around in such a place, you’ll find their beak-work on many of the dead trees:

Many woodpeckers leave small holes, but pileated woodpeckers leave these med-to-large distinctive rectangular holes. The chopping is loud, and they are loud – making jungle-like whinnying calls. I think they make a contest of it with yellow-bellied sapsuckers every April on who can draw the most attention.

The male does most of the work excavating a large oblong nest that can be upwards of 2 feet deep, likely in a dead tree, perhaps an ash, basswood or beech, and likely deep in the woods. The only lining is leftover woodchips. And he sure takes his time, as much as 6 weeks. It’s this architectural masterpiece that will attract a female, and she’ll probably stay with him for life.

Pileateds main food by far is carpenter ants and other insects like wood-boring beetle larvae, lapping them up with a surprisingly long barbed tongue. They feed high in the dead trees, but are usually spotted when in our sight field drilling into dead trunks and stumps on the ground. On occasion they will eat fruit and nuts from blackberries, our many cherries, crabapple, various dogwood berries, elderberry, greenbrier, holly, oaks, poison ivy, sumac berries, Virginia creeper, and wild grapes.

How to Attract Pileated Woodpeckers

If you have a large wooded property be sure to leave the dead trees for nesting, roosting and feeding needs. In areas where your property is clear of shrubs, perhaps right in your back yard, leaving dead logs will help bring them around for some birdwatching. And of course, not using any insecticides is important. The oak tree and aforementioned fruit bearing plants could be planted as well.

Suet feeders, seeds and nuts may attract them but the ultimate feeder for pileated woodpeckers is a log or stump with holes drilled in it and stuffed with suet.

Taking a note from April’s Warbler Checklist, here’s a woodpecker version for us folks around Haliburton, Ontario, Canada (Right-click and “Save image as…” to save and print):

The most common here are hairy woodpecker (dryobates villosus), yellow-bellied sapsucker (sphyrapicus varius), pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus), downy woodpecker (dryobates pubescens) and northern flicker (colaptes auratus). Following the knocking sounds and in the downy and hairy’s case having a suet feeder will almost guarantee you can spot these any given year.

The harder few to find are black-backed woodpecker (picoides arcticus), red-headed woodpecker (melanerpes erythrocephalus) and red-bellied woodpecker (melanerpes carolinus). I have yet to see a black-backed! Have you?

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