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Blane Klemek column: Pileated woodpecker is extraordinary

One of my favorite cartoons when I was a little boy as I sat glued to the television on Saturday mornings was Woody Woodpecker.

In fact, right now, while writing these words, I'm whistling the well-known jingle. Go ahead, whistle it; it'll put a smile on your face.

Have you ever wondered where the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker got its likeness? Sure, the redheaded cartoon bird probably reminds many people of a red-headed woodpecker, but that madcap cry and the crest on his head was undoubtedly inspired by a very real, very alive and very large woodpecker of the woods - the pileated woodpecker.

Its unusual name - pileated - means having a crest covering the pileum, or, in other words, a crest on top of the head. However you pronounce this bird's name, whether you say "pill-ee-ate-ed" or "pile-ee-ate-ed" or "pile-ate-ed," the pileated woodpecker is among one of the most uncommon yet unmistakable and recognizable birds of Minnesota. A year-round avian resident that inhabits woodlands from the Red River Valley to the southeastern corner of the state, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its telltale undulating way or heard by its powerful drumming on trees with its bill or by its maniacal call that resonates through forests and woodlands alike.

Indeed, often described as "crow-sized," the pileated woodpecker is the largest of all our North American woodpeckers. With its solid black back, a conspicuously red-crested head, and a 16- to 19.5-inch-long body, the pileated woodpecker should never be confused with any other bird. As well, the male has a red "mustache" just behind the beak, whereas the female's marking is colored black, not red.

Even if you don't observe or hear an actual pileated woodpecker in its natural environment, it's nevertheless easy to tell where a pileated woodpecker has been if you happen to be exploring its preferred habitat of deciduous or mixed forests. The enormous woodpecker has the impressive habit of excavating elongated and distinctive cavities in dead and dying trees.

I once observed a completely excavated dead basswood tree that was literally mined from the base of the tree to the height of more than 12 feet above the ground! There were so many wood chips on the forest floor it looked as if someone had been there with a Wood-Mizer cutting logs into boards. It was incredible, to say the least.

Upon examining such impressive cavities, you might wonder why pileated woodpeckers go to so much trouble carving out such deep and extensive holes into dead and dying trees. Are they making a cavity for nesting? Are they pounding the tree to advertise territorial boundaries? Or are they looking for food?

The fact is, these secretive birds hollow out trees for all these reasons, but primarily for food. The enormous woodpeckers seek carpenter ants, which are large wood inhabiting ants that chew galleries and nest inside wood. Equipped with a chisel-shaped beak, not to mention a long, barbed, sticky tongue used to snatch up hapless insects, a pileated woodpecker visits and revisits selected trees until the food source has been exhausted. Many a large elm or stately cottonwood, long after having died, is reduced to cavity-riddled trunks from years of woodpecker borings.

Pileated woodpeckers maintain large territories and regularly visit partially excavated trees. I have often observed individual pileated woodpeckers flying through areas of different forests, vocalizing as they fly, then landing on their favorite trees.

Several autumns ago while hunting deer from a tree, a pileated woodpecker flew within a dozen feet of me. The great bird flapped its large and powerful wings as it swooped upward to land on the trunk of a nearby aspen. The force of its landing made a loud "whump" as I watched the bird prop itself upright with its stiff tail and four-toed feet. Following a thorough search of the area as the bird moved its head looking from side to side, it was airborne again, calling loudly as it flew, and was gone.

It occurred to me that the remarkable-looking bird was probably patrolling its territory -- making the rounds, if you will. No doubt the woodpecker was intimately familiar with everything about its home, from where all the best food trees were located, to old cavities it might have used in the past, to possible future food and nesting trees.

Mated pairs of pileated woodpeckers share a territory that can exceed 200 acres in size. A clutch of four eggs is typically laid inside a tree cavity they construct. These nests are often two feet deep and up to 70 feet above ground. And when cavities they build are eventually abandoned, they are almost always used by other species of birds and mammals for a wide variety of uses, including nesting and shelter.

For sure, few other birds in Minnesota, and certainly no other woodpecker, are as unique as the pileated woodpecker. Whether you call him Woody Woodpecker or any number of pronunciations of his common name, he won't mind. In any event, this extraordinary woodpecker is all the reason we should need to 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