Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
The Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest woodpecker in North America. We have several on our farm and they are amazing to watch in flight. Their exaggerated swooping and their large body make them easy to identify. But they are not related to pterodactyls – they just give that impression with their size and “jack-hammer” approach to bug hunting. These woodpeckers live in Virginia year-round and, unlike most other birds, they will defend their territory all year as well – not just during breeding season.
According to Birds of North America (an amazing publication of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Pileateds prefer an oak-hickory forest with mature stands of dense vegetation near the ground. They have a long-extensible, pointed tongue with barbs and sticky saliva. They use their tongues to extract ants from tunnels in rotting wood. A pair of pileated woodpeckers needs a large amount of land – around 150 acres or more – to raise their young.
The Pileated, like most woodpeckers, nest in hollow trees or vacated nest cavities. They excavate only the entrance hole to gain access to the hollow interior of a tree. They often have multiple entrances holes, so they have an escape route if a predator enters the roost. We have not seen the Pileated’s nest site on our farm yet but we know it is in a heavily wooded area in a steep ravine at the back of our property. They play a vital role in forests like the one adjacent to the north side of our farm. They excavate large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are then used by all sorts of other birds and mammals. That can include wood ducks, bats and flying squirrels.
Scientists have noticed that Pileated woodpecker numbers increase in areas with widespread emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills ash trees. That could mean that these woodpeckers could be one of the strongest lines of defense to control non-native forest pests. So leave those dead and dying trees out there for these wonderful woodpeckers. They’ll improve the habitat and attract all sorts of wildlife to your property.
Birding tip: You can often tell the difference between a Pileated and other woodpeckers by their drumming, without even seeing it. Most woodpeckers drum at a steady pace. A Pileated drums slowly, accelerating and then trailing off. And as Audubon notes, “their loud, escalating shrieks bring to mind a maniacal laugh. " So true!
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