BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
Whenever I’m fortunate enough to see a pileated woodpecker flying high through the treetops, all I can think about is the screwball Woody Woodpecker character of cartoon fame. The extra-large pileated even acts like Woody, constantly creating havoc and mayhem by flying around making an insane ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha sound while smashing his head like a jackhammer into tree trunks—tearing away chunks of wood—just to get at the insects hiding inside the bark.
Excluding the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated, with its nearly thirty-inch wingspan, is the largest woodpecker in North America. Pileateds live throughout the eastern US as well as along the northwest Pacific Coast. Highly adaptable, they can be found in any areas with large trees—older urban and suburban areas, conservation open spaces, parks, and even the fringes of golf courses.
A Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) doing its best Woody Woodpecker imitation. (Photo Copyright: Deb Campbell/Shutterstock.com)
Within birding circles, pileateds are well known as ecosystem engineers. Using their feet and long tail feathers as balancing fulcrums, they hammer out large rectangular cavities in tree trunks up to a foot long and several feet deep. Their enthusiastic drumming as they dig is so loud that it can he heard several hundred yards away. Like all woodpeckers, pileateds also drum on wood—or any other hard substance that is handy—to attract mates and announce the boundaries of their nesting territories.
Pileateds may excavate as many as sixteen holes in a tree to use as escape routes from predators. They also peck the bark away from around their primary entrance hole—this allows the sap to run and prevent predators—such as black rat snakes—from entering their nesting cavities. Since pileateds only use their nest holes once, all their abandoned holes provide shelter and nesting space for a host of other birds and mammals, such as swifts, owls, wood ducks, pine martens, raccoons, and opossums.
Using their long barbed tongues, pileated woodpeckers are able to extract their favorite foods—carpenter ants and the larvae of wood boring beetles—lying deep within the wood of tree trunks. Many other birds also feed in their excavations, after the pileateds have eaten their fill and left to do something else for a while.
Because of the extensive damage their persistent jackhammering can do—especially to smaller trees—pileateds are considered undesirable by some homeowners. But they more than offset any structural damage they do to trees by controlling populations of harmful, wood boring insects.
In eastern North America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, logging of mature trees in their forested habitats led to sharp declines in pileated populations. But as farms were abandoned in favor of urban and suburban lifestyles after World War II, forestland—and pileated populations—made a significant comeback in most eastern states.
So now anytime you’re out for a stroll through an eastern deciduous forest with mostly mature trees, keep your eyes on the canopy. You just might see Woody Woodpecker.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.