Wild Life / pileated woodpecker

crowned with red

Hi, friends — everything burst into full summer last weekend. Life is frantic and active, sweaty and full of mosquitos. Within the thrum, the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) makes a regal presence. — Amy Jean

Any day with a pileated woodpecker is a good day. Their flash of red is a shock against summer greens, their deep black wings more sombre and serious. They are remarkably large, somewhat bigger and lankier than crows, long and elegant. They visit the stumps around us and the old dying trees, stubborn as sticks.

I like this about birds, that their beauty is fueled by something gross—the guts of insects. In the pileated’s case, they look for carpenter ants living in dead wood. I’ve seen them swoop in with their cape-like wings and hop up trees in search of breakfast. They excavate the wood with their bills, banging and chipping away. When they find an ant nest, they lap up hundreds at a time with their sticky, 4-inch-long tongue.

I once had a vision of a small man in a fine suit walking around the bottom of an oak stump—of course it was a pileated looking for food. Its presence changed the whole forest as everything realigned around its red cap. I watched it for one bright moment until the bird stretched its inky wings and flew away.

Pileated woodpeckers are fairly common within their range, mainly throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Their numbers were greatly reduced by deforestation in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the birds have made a comeback as second-growth forests matured. They are fairly adaptable birds, who seem to have sorted out living among humans (unlike the related ivory-billed woodpecker, which is likely extinct).

Pileateds are somewhat elusive, more likely to be heard than seen. They drum against trees (also utility poles, rain gutters, etc.) as a territorial claim. They also make a wonderfully maniacal call that, at least to my ears, is the closest thing North America has to a monkey screaming in a jungle (link below).

Like other woodpeckers, pileateds have adaptations that allow them to bang their heads (up to 20 times a second) against hardwood trees. Their bones are stronger and have a different composition than other birds, and they have a spongey, shock-absorbing layer that protects their brain. Something I hadn’t thought about, but which is both practical and amazing, is a special membrane that protects their eyes from debris and, along with their eyelids, keeps their eyes from popping out.

Pileateds are the excavators of the animal kingdom. They carve out space for their own nests and then abandon them, leaving little apartments open for all kinds of other birds and mammals. They make life possible, giving it space within decay; they are the architects, magicians, beacons of the animal kingdom. Their presence changes everything.

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Pileated woodpecker links

  • Here’s a nice, quick closeup of their crazy cackle [YouTube]

  • And another bit of head banging and fun yelling, here [YouTube]

  • I also enjoyed these baby dinosaurs yapping away for a few minutes until their father comes to feed them. At the end they make a bizarre, almost synchronized raspy sound. [YouTube]

  • “In photographs, the Ivory-bill has something human about it. There’s a sentience to the weirdly alert yellow eyes …” Here’s a great long read about searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker in Cuba [Audubon]

Animal encounters in recent comments


  • My woodpecker drawing is for sale. Please let me know if you’re interested. I’ll send some of the proceeds to the National Audubon Society. Other drawings of mine are available here.

  • Next time: it’s a tiger swallowtail (or maybe a bobcat!).

Wild Life #25 / This newsletter is a place to learn about the life around us, one small step/paw/tiny heartbeat at a time. Thanks for reading and sharing with friends and family. Have a great weekend.