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WHAT THE PECK: A Peek into the Pileated Woodpecker

(Illustration: James Tilley)

In the heart of the forest where the trees stand tall, a magnificent, mischievous creature rules the roost — the pileated woodpecker. With its vibrant plumage and distinctive “crazy laugh,” pileateds have a knack for drilling holes in trees that would put any construction crew to shame.

The pileated is the largest woodpecker in North America, aside from the Ivory-billed woodpecker which is believed to be extinct. The Ivory-billed (the pileated’s distant cousin) is the subject of local author Tom Gallant’s fabulous novel “The Lord God Bird,” which is well worth a read to birders and nonbirders alike. 

“Pileated” comes from the latin word pileatus meaning “capped”, referring to their feathery red hat. It’s believed that Woody Woodpecker’s character was based on the appearance of the pileated.

These peckers are quite the percussionists. With their loud drumroll, they peck large rectangular holes in trees to find bugs, occasionally splitting small trees in two. While looking for food, these little carpenters excavate holes large enough for other big birds (like owls and tree-nesting ducks) to use for nesting. They mostly eat ants, but also feast on nuts, berries, and some invasive insects. They will sometimes descend on backyard feeders, especially when there’s suet on the menu. 

These flashy fellas chisel their nest cavities in standing dead trees. If you’re a landowner, consider leaving dead trees up if you are able. This will help woodpeckers, as well as other birds that might occupy their nests after they vacate.


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