A gargantuan woodpecker the size of a crow chiseling away at a tree is sure to grab the eye. People who work in the natural sciences regularly get calls and e-mails from people who are startled and fascinated by their first encounter with a pileated woodpecker (pronunciation: Pie-lee-ate-id). Can’t blame ‘em—everything about these jumbo log-choppers is over the top.
There are seven regularly occurring species of woodpeckers in West Virginia, most of which visit feeders and are familiar to backyard birders. The most frequent of the bunch is the downy woodpecker, a small black and white bird that often visits suet feeders. It would take about eleven downy woodpeckers to equal the mass of one pileated woodpecker.
Pileated woodpeckers are unmistakable. No other woodpecker in West Virginia—or the United States—comes close in size. The only one that did was the now extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. Pileateds are mostly coal-black with prominent white stripes on the neck and head, and white patches in the wings. A distinctive feature is their bold red crest: red all the way to the bill in males; females have a black forehead. Males are further distinguished by their red “moustache.”
Their loud, laughing, maniacal calls carry long distances, often revealing the woodpecker’s presence long before it is seen. The listener is often surprised to learn that it’s a woodpecker that is creating these wild sounds. Another surefire sign of their presence are large, oval-shaped holes, created as nest cavities and also as bore-holes into beetle- and ant-infested trees.
For the most part pileateds shun feeders, preferring to stick to natural foods, although sometimes suet feeders lure them in. They are carpenter ant specialists, adeptly locating ant colonies within trees. When a woodpecker detects ants, it uses its massive chisel-like bill to pry away large slivers of wood and expose the ant galleries. Woodpeckers are equipped with barbed tongues, and they are extremely effective at lapping lots of ants from their chambers.
Pileated woodpeckers are birds of mature woodlands, and they are very common in heavily forested West Virginia. Anyone who spends time hiking around Fayetteville or rafting the New River is sure to hear, if not see, these enormous hammerheads.
Having lots of pileated woodpeckers is important for multiple reasons. They are agents of control for various insect tree pests. Pileateds are also what biologists term a “keystone” species, because many other animals benefit from the woodpecker’s work. Their large nest cavities are often later used by everything from flying squirrels, screech-owls, wood ducks, to black rat snakes. Feeding sites are often raided by other woodpeckers, wrens, and various species that otherwise could not get at the food exposed by the big woodpeckers.
Finally, pileateds are exciting to us: without doubt one of our grandest birds. Everyone from veteran birders to people who know nothing about birds is stopped in their tracks by the sight of one. These huge woodpeckers greatly enrich West Virginia’s woodlands and we are fortunate to have them around.
Jim McCormac is an Ohio-based naturalist, author of three books on wildlife, and frequent blogger at jimmccormac.blogspot.com.