We often see amusing and interesting wildlife behavior at our backyard bird feeding stations; be it squirrels trying to access our “squirrel proof” feeders, yellow-bellied sapsuckers hanging precariously from a hummingbird feeder, or the occasional black bear standing like a person while daintily (or not) lapping up mouthfuls of sunflower seed from a feeder.

    While countless other happenings and observations could be enumerated, few incidents are as comical looking as a pileated woodpecker dangling upside down feeding from a ball of suet. Indeed, these oversized woodpeckers, though gangly looking, are actually very nimble and quite capable of astonishing acrobatic stunts.

    Pileated woodpeckers are arguably the most eye-catching bird of the forest. To observe one of these giant woodpeckers is always a thrill. Attractive birds in their own right, pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in North America. Only the ivory-billed woodpecker is larger, however there is no evidence that this species exists today, as it almost certainly is extinct.

    With a total body length of about 20 inches and a wingspan that can be nearly 30 inches wide, pileated woodpeckers are super-sized woodpeckers. Typically described as a “crow-sized” bird (not to mention the fact that these special woodpeckers are predominantly black in color), body size and plumage coloration is where all similarities to crows stop.

    Sexes look alike save for the red “mustache” that only the male pileated woodpecker possesses. The so-called mustache is normally described in field guide books as a red stripe on the cheek. The stripe on female pileated woodpeckers is black, not red. Otherwise it is difficult to distinguish between males and females because both sexes share all other physical traits—red crests, white stripes on the face and neck, white underwings, black bodies, long wedge-shaped tails, and long and heavy chisel-like bills.  

    A trait that isn’t necessarily phenotypic, or a trait linked to their outward and observable physical appearance, is what pileated woodpeckers can do with their bills and the evidence their activities leave behind. Anyone aware of the habits of pileated woodpeckers know what these extraordinary birds can do to a tree infested with carpenter ants.

    The giant, elongated excavations in such trees with heaping piles of wood chips on the forest floor beneath the gaping holes, is indicative of only one possibility—and that of course is the pileated woodpecker. So capable is the species of extracting carpenter ants and other insects from pest-ridden trees that some trees’ are completely bored through to where daylight can be seen from one side of the tree to the other. And in a stiff wind, such trees can buckle and topple to the ground.

    Contrary to popular belief, pileated woodpeckers do not chisel their telltale and deep excavations into healthy trees. Rather, the trees of choice are most assuredly diseased and dying trees packed full of carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae that pileated woodpeckers actively seek out for food.

    According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, other insects on the menu include spruce budworm, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other species of ants. Wild fruits and nuts are also consumed, including blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, dogwood, and elderberry.  Yet it’s ants that make up the bulk of a pileated woodpecker’s diet. In some studies where researchers analyzed pileated woodpecker diet, “. . . ants constituted 40 percent of the diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals.” Without a doubt, ants are critical to pileated woodpecker survival.  

    Another noticeable feature of pileated woodpeckers is their long necks. Long necks enable the woodpecker to strike at trees with much more force than woodpeckers with shorter necks. Think of this as your own approach to hammering a heavy nail into a hard board by rearing back as far as you can in order to enhance the force of the blow.

    Combined with powerful feet to grip onto the bark, a sharp and heavy beak, and a stout, long tail to wedge themselves securely against the tree, pileated woodpeckers’ size, strength, and specialized features enable them to secure food quickly and efficiently.

    Pileated woodpeckers are truly fascinating species of birds. That they live among us in forests and woodlands throughout Minnesota is testament to their success as a species, and we’re lucky to have them near as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.  

    Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at bklemek@yahoo.com.