For The Birds

What a Woodpecker!
By John Trott, Contributing Columnist

In the central North Carolina of my growing up years, the bold black-and-white pileated woodpecker with the flaming red crest was called the "Great God woodpecker." Surely one feels like saying "Great God!," or something like it, on seeing this crow-sized bird for the first time (or even the second or third).

To answer a question frequently asked me, the common name of this woodpecker is correctly pronounced as PIE-leh-ted or PIL-ea-ted. The word, pileated, is derived from a Latin word for crested. The full Latin name, Dryocopus pileatus, translates to "crested wood cleaver." The bird is certainly that.

In 1911, this bird was called "log cock" by my personal hero Alexander Wilson, known today as the "Father of American Ornithology."
At 19 inches long, the pileated woodpecker, with its striking plumage, is an awesome sight.

Watching this 19-inch bird tear into a tree or stump after carpenter ants is an awesome sight. It is a challenge to find the right words to describe both the bird’s striking plumage, and its abrupt, aggressive movements and determination to get at carpenter ants that have tunneled into a tree trunk.

Like all woodpeckers, the pileated is well equipped for a vertical life. Two toes in front and two behind make strong claws for clinging to tree trunks. Stiff and sharply pointed tail feathers are used as a prop while the bird excavates using a sharp, chisel-like, two-inch-long bill.

I have a friend who calls the pileated woodpecker the "clown prince of the woods." Though perfectly equipped for a vertical life, a pileated can be clownish when his weight and size require him to operate on or near the horizontal. I observed this one February afternoon, when a pileated, under heavy attack from a mockingbird, lost his grip and fell to the ground!

The pileated woodpecker is a living symbol of the American wilderness, a reminder of the virgin forests that existed before European axes felled the great trees. Along with the great horned owl, raven and wild turkey, the big woodpecker was a part of the limitless eastern forests.

In 1916, ornithologist T. Gilbert Pearson wrote: "As this woodpecker seems not to possess the faculty of adapting itself to the new conditions created by civilization, it is quite possible that it will not long survive the passing of our primeval forests."

But the pileated woodpecker did adapt. As eastern farms were abandoned and trees grew and matured, the log cock returned.

We will never see trees the size of the original forests, but the second-growth trees are big enough for the mighty whacker. Yet the bird is too large and requires too much territory to ever be common. The pileated can now be seen as its nearly three-foot wingspan carries it through the forests and its loud kik-kikkik-kik call echoes among the tree trunks.

It requires 30 days for a pair of pileated woodpeckers to excavate a gourd-shaped nest cavity as deep as two feet within a dead tree. Females do most of the work.

The entrance is an oval — sometimes squarish — shape; other woodpeckers enter cavities through a round hole. Three to five white eggs are laid on soft chips in the bottom of the cavity. The male does the major part of incubation, for he spends nights on the eggs and part of each day. The female provides essential warmth the rest of the time.
John Trott, author of this column, is offering readers a set of 8 of his favorite portraits of birds (Blue Jay, Cardinal, Wood Thrush, White Ibis, Snow Goose, Great Egret, Least Tern-2). The cost is $5 and includes shipping. These 6x81/2 in. prints are suitable for framing. To order, mail check (made out to John Trott) to P.O. Box 515, Flint Hill, VA 22627.

It is interesting to note that all woodpeckers lay white eggs. Spotted and speckled eggs are laid by other birds for camouflage; woodpecker eggs deep within a cavity are protected by being out of sight. After 18 days, blind young emerge. Naked and without feathers, these young are little more than embryos. They emerge from the egg hungry, and open their mouths at the sound of the adult entering the cavity with food. On the third day the eyes open. Both parents feed the young. The male carries most of the responsibility for protection; he broods the young — cold-blooded at first — at night while the female sleeps nearby in her own private roosting cavity. Throughout nest life, the young are fed partially digested berries and insects such as ants and beetles. The adults insert their long bills into the open mouths and vigorously pump food into the stomachs of the young. Feeding continues long after the young leave the nest and the family stays together until early autumn. Then the young are driven away and must seek territory far away from the home nest tree. In this way the pileated woodpecker extends its range and population expansion results if enough mature trees are available for feeding and nesting.

Few predators are bold enough to seek a meal of eggs or young of the "log cock." The adults are vigorous in protecting the nest and have been known to attack and kill a black snake climbing the nest tree in search of a meal.

Like all woodpeckers, the "log cock" communicates through both drumming and vocalizations. The sound can best be described as a series of low, almost guttural sounds: wuk-wuk-wuk, rising and falling in pitch.

Drumming is distinct and consists of a rapid series of taps almost like a drum roll. The sound carries great distances and serves to announce to a listening female the availability of the male as a mate; later it proclaims territorial rights to other male pileated woodpeckers.

Whether called "log cock," "Great God woodpecker," pileated or "clown prince of the woods," this bird with great, bounding wingbeats and the look of wildness in his eyes makes life richer. The "log cock’s" survival is a reminder of a vanished America.


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