Backyard Percussionists

Backyardpercussionists Pileated Woodpecker

A pileated woodpecker tends to its brood. Due to its large size, striking coiffure, boisterous call and entertaining tree-hopping antics, the pileated is an especially fun woodpecker to watch.

There is not a nature lover among us whose ears do not perk up at the sound of a drumming woodpecker. With a quick scan of nearby trees, we spot their typical black-and-white pattern and characteristic vertical scramble up the trunks and branches as they probe and drill for insects or drum out their rhythms. Frequently, we catch the tail end of their stopover and recognize their distinctive undulating flight as they move on to the next tree. The woodpeckers found in our backyards all behave similarly, so narrowing our identification down to this interesting group of birds is reasonably easy.

However, the drumming sound is difficult to use for identification because the drumming surfaces — which can be dead trees, aluminum gutters or street lights — can sound alike when banged on with as strong an instrument as a bird’s bill. In some cases, the species can be determined by the number of beats, cadence, even the time between drum solos, but that is best left up to the birds and maybe a few dedicated researchers. There are three purposes for which woodpeckers are known to use their stout bills and reinforced skulls to drum: to forage for insects or drill for sap; to hollow out nest cavities in dead and live wood; and to communicate, either to attract a mate or stake a territory. 

Beyond the drumming, woodpeckers have unique voices. The pileated woodpecker, the largest in North America (unfortunately advanced to that place by the demise of the ivory-billed woodpecker of the Southeastern United States), routinely has what is described as a “wuk” call. It consists of a series of melodic “wuks” that remind me of a Tarzan movie. In my neighborhood, within a minute of hearing the jungle-like call, one of the birds will fly to a different tree. It is their way to communicate that they are moving on, and it is fun to watch. 

Pileated woodpeckers are omnivorous, eating insects, nuts, berries and fruit. Not only can they obliterate a dead tree branch in search of ants, but they hop around in the yard, often at the base of the tree, hunting bugs. Like the other woodpeckers in our area, they are sexually dimorphic, meaning there is a difference in the feather pattern between males and females. Males sport an attractive red mustache to complement their bright red crest — the showy feathers on the bird’s head. The females have a black mustache, and their red crest is limited.

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