February 01, 2016

Many secrets of the pileated woodpecker, the forest bird extraordinaire of Michigan, unfold during winter months, and so do dramatic photographic opportunities. With increased visibility after leaf-fall, coupled with audible clues and unmistakable physical evidence; encounters with this magnificent woodpecker become easier in the woodlands and wildlands and sometimes suburban and urban neighborhoods.

Welcome to the world of the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), perhaps the most striking forest bird of North America. Only the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (if alive) is a larger woodpecker, a species that some believe may have cheated extinction and just perhaps survives somewhere in the southeastern bottomland forests and swamps of the Southeastern United States.

The pileated woodpecker is a year round resident of Michigan and is easily and quickly recognized by its black body, white stripes down the neck and the most easily identifiable marking, its brilliant flame-red crest. No other bird boasts these markings, and the pileated is indeed a very big woodpecker with its 30 inch wingspan. With a bit of practice it is easy to tell the male from the female; the males have a noticeable patch of red feathers that run from the back of the bill across the cheek area to a point under the eye. It’s just a black patch of feathers in the same area for the females. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that both the male and female are from 15.7 to 19.3 inches long, but trying to measure a woodpecker in flight would be futile. But viewing for the first time is an unforgettable, “Oh Wow!” moment, made even more dramatic when the woods are snowy and the sky is blue.

Experienced birders, and those with an ear to the ways of nature are drawn to the rattling call of the pileated; often the first clue they have entered pileated habitat. It was a resonating burst of loud tree whacking from the bill blasting against dead wood, combined with its intermittent call that lured me in to capture the photos that accompany this story. From there, it was just a matter of a slow and steady approach to come within range for photos.

Recognizing the call of the pileated is beneficial for photographic captures and gives outdoor adventurers a starting point to track down this beauty. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the vocal variations of the pileated woodpecker this way, “pileated woodpeckers are quite vocal, typically making a high, clear, and series of piping calls that lasts several seconds. The sound is quite similar to a Northern Flicker’s rattling call, although it tends to be more resonant and less even in tone, with changing emphasis or rhythm during the call. Pileated woodpeckers also give shorter calls that sound like wuk, wuk or cuk, cuk to indicate a territory boundary or to give an alarm.”

Moments after “my” red-crested forest ghost landed on a snag, perhaps 100 feet from me, another more distant rattling call resonated through the woods, silencing the constant chatter of a red squirrel protesting my log-sitting intrusion. Another three second bust of loud tree-whacking confirmed this was a breakfast hunt.

The pileated is very much at home in our midst and has carved out niches both literally and figuratively all across the state. Sometimes nature takes drastic action that rapidly alters habitat and favors the species. Such was the case on August 2 when straight-line winds that reached 100 mph blasted through sections of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and part of the town of Glen Arbor creating new habitat and future feeding opportunities. The sudden abundance of standing snags, combined with a matrix of downed, dead and decaying wood beckon woodpeckers, including the pileated. I will make an educated guess their numbers will increase over the next few years.

Male (note the red cheek stripe) pileated woodpeckers hunting for grubs and hibernating insects.

It’s easy to spot the feeding cavities of the pileated. Look for very large excavated rectangular-shaped holes created during their endless quest for their favorite food- – carpenter ants. Their excavations are impressive, and may be over a foot long and four of five inches deep. The holes are created to intercept the tunnels of carpenter ants that found sanctuary in dead and dying trees. Grubs and hibernating bugs are also winter prey during the cold months. After excavating the cavernous opening with its powerful bill, the long barbed tongue is used to snare wood-boring larva and other meaty treats. Much to the delight of observers, the opportunist pileated woodpecker sometimes visits suet feeders in winter, however the significantly smaller Red-headed Woodpecker is often mistaken for a “small” pileated when it appears. If there is not a large red CREST on the head, it will not be a pileated woodpecker.

And just as storms and insect damage create opportunities for the pileated, the nest hole excavations made in early spring by the pileated woodpecker provides for other wildlife species. The deep nest cavity within the tree may be two feet long and can take a month to construct. Interestingly, these nests are seldom used a second year and that makes for great housing opportunities for screech owls, chickadees, wood ducks, bats and other species of woodpeckers, a reminder of paraphrased words attributed to John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

These “attachments” created by the pileated woodpecker are often hidden in plain sight, but unfold their secrets for those who take the time to walk slowly, stop often, look and listen as they wander the wintery woodlands of Michigan.

Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist/paramedic in Brandon Township and the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. Email: oaknature@aol.com