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).
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
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 birds 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.
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
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 cocks" survival
is a reminder of a vanished America.