If you ever see one, a Pileated is hard to not pay attention to. They’re just huge, make a LOT of noise, and they have this massive red crest that makes them look like what everyone thinks a woodpecker should look like. Hence, they were one of the models for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker.
For you young ‘uns out there, Woody was popular from 1940 to 1972, the last 15 years on Saturday morning cartoons.
What’s for lunch?
Big bird = big appetite. A Pileated’s favourite meal are the big black carpenter ants that eat out old dead trees. Pileateds can actually hear the ants inside the tree. To get at the ants, they drill massive holes — as big as your fist — into the tree, and then use their long sticky tongue to lick the ants out. The holes they drill are distinctive: large and almost always rectangular.
We’ve also seen them eating dogwood berries. While they love ants, they’ll also eat nuts and seeds, and any other bug that lives in trees (like pine beetle larvae).
Pileateds are not terribly common. A nesting pair requires a large area of forest, typically 40 ha or more, to feed and breed. Their breeding roost is an even bigger hole they drill, up to 60 cm deep and 20 cm wide, and they really like gutting poplars and cottonwoods to do their nesting, often meaning their nests are near rivers. They nest in mid-spring, and have 3-5 chicks that fledge in early July.
Normally though, you’ll see the evidence of their tree-demolition work far more than you’ll see them. That’s a Pileated’s doing, with an iPhone for scale, pictured at right. The holes are usually near ground level. Any hole higher than 5 m off the ground is a nesting cavity. If you find one tree full of Pileated holes, you’ll typically find several more nearby.
You’ll also hear a Pileated long before seeing one. Their laughing call (which Woody Woodpecker emulated) is loud can be heard a long way away. It also likes to drum, which other woodpeckers (including Flickers) do not. Their drumming is against wood, so sounds much different than the deep drumming sound of a grouse.
Meet some more of the interesting critters of K-Country here!