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Giant woodpeckers are amazing sights

Woody the Woodpecker, a famous cartoon character first created in the 1940s, is thought to have come about through an experience that the character's creator had with a real-life Woody. Supposedly, Woody's creator, Walter Lantz, was disturbed by a woodpecker pecking on his honeymoon cabin. The bird had incensed the man to the point of his wanting to dispatch the bird, but his bride suggested that he make a cartoon character out of the woodpecker instead.

What with the bird's talent to produce piercing, hysterical cries and jackhammer-level decibels echoing through the forest, it's easy to imagine that the one North American woodpecker capable of inciting the ire of the unsympathetic, let alone the inspiration of a cartoon, would most definitely be the incomparable pileated woodpecker.

The pileated woodpecker, according to David Sibley's "The Sibley Guide to Birds," is "our largest [North American] woodpecker." This statement assumed that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, though, since the publication of my edition of Sibley's, the ivory-billed woodpecker made recent headlines when the species was reportedly observed in parts of Arkansas and Florida. Since then (about four years ago), none of the evidence of the existence of an ivory-billed woodpecker population in North America has been substantiated.

Yet despite the presence or absence of ivory bills, the undisputed fact amongst wildlife enthusiasts and ornithologists alike is pileated woodpeckers are BIG woodpeckers. With a wingspan of nearly 30 inches and a body length of around 15-19 inches, pileated woodpeckers are conspicuous, awe-inspiring birds of our woodlands, forests and wooded river bottoms.

Like many other species of woodpeckers inhabiting North America, pileated woodpeckers have red-colored feathers on their heads - in the pileated's case, significantly so. This crested woodpecker, which is what its name "pileated" means (having a crest covering the pileum, or head), is our only truly crested woodpecker.

If, for example, by the remotest of chances, a would-be observer confuses the bird with another species, then this very diagnostic and prominent trait should convince otherwise. Or, if not its red crest, then perhaps the pileated's crow-size black body, white underwings, its very long neck and tail, or white lines along their throats would help differentiate it from other birds.

Male and female pileated woodpeckers are quite similar in appearance, save for a couple of notable, though subtle, differences. Whereas a male bird has a distinctive red "mustache" or "malar" stripe and red forehead, the females' malar stripe is black, and her forehead is gray to yellow-brown. But both sexes have red crests, black backs and white underwings.

Mated pairs maintain and defend expansive territories when nesting and caring for their young - 150 to more than 200 acres. Therefore, when a bird is spotted it will likely be a single bird or pair. Their massive size and the frequency they are observed may dupe some birders into believing that they're viewing more birds than they actually are.

Honestly, I cannot recall a single time that I've observed more than two adult pileated woodpeckers in the same place at the same time. However, if you do happen upon a pileated woodpecker's territory, you will likely see the birds visiting favorite feeding sites, flying about, or, if you're lucky, visiting their nest cavity.

While mixed coniferous-deciduous forests are readily used by pileated woodpeckers, the key habitat components are large, mature trees in forests with plenty of dying or dead standing trees (or snags as wildlife biologists and foresters refer to such trees as). Snags are essential to the survival of pileated woodpeckers. Without dead and dying trees these woodpeckers would be without proper roosting, nesting, and feeding sites.

It's often the case that the only visible sign of a pileated woodpecker occupying an area are the elongated and deep excavations they carve into trees and stumps as they search for carpenter ants, beetle larvae and other invertebrates. Landowners owning wooded acreage can help many species of wildlife, not just pileated woodpeckers, by allowing snags to remain standing, rather than removing them. Even urban dwellers are sometimes successful at attracting the enormous woodpeckers to their backyards because a dead tree was allowed to stay put.

Pileated woodpeckers are undoubtedly one of the most fascinating North American birds. They are essential birds of the forest that help to hasten the recycling of nutrients from dead wood to the soil, in addition to providing homes for other species of wildlife that depend on the woodpeckers' abandoned tree cavities for den and nest sites.

An uncommon bird, the unmistakable woodpecker is a resident throughout Minnesota. From the Red River Valley to the southeastern corner of the state, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its typical undulating way, or heard by its powerful drumming on trees with its bill and by its maniacal call resonating through the woodlands. Lucky we are to live in a place where such magnificent birds can be viewed as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at