Beak of the Week – Pileated Woodpecker

✏️ By Ryan Call, Houston Audubon Young Professionals Advisory Council 2021

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Family: Picidae

Records show that the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America—the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker were larger but are presumed extinct.

An unmistakable, crested, red and black, crow-sized bird, the Pileated Woodpecker makes its home in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests—forests with older, larger trees capable of sustaining the bird’s massive nest and roost cavities—across North America, so you should imagine its year-round range to be a sort of upturned U settled onto the map of our continent.

You can hear its loud, cacophonous, and repetitive call echoing throughout the forest: a few seconds of high, clear, piping chucks reminiscent of the call of a Northern Flicker, but more robust and deeper in tone. The drum, too, of a Pileated Woodpecker is obnoxiously loud and deep—it rolls throughout the forest. I hate to say it this way, but it just makes sense: when you hear the drum of a Pileated Woodpecker, you know it’s the drum of a Pileated Woodpecker.

What I’ve always found to be most fascinating about the Pileated Woodpecker is this: the bird has a tremendously powerful and influential beak. The Pileated Woodpecker itself can seemingly quickly and powerfully hollow out and destroy a tree branch or trunk. I have often witnessed these birds working feverishly at their project: foraging in the roots about a stump at Jesse H. Jones Park or cutting a swath of emptiness into a tree trunk in the woods of the Houston Arboretum. Above our own front yard, my daughters and I discovered a single male unabashedly pillaging a deadish limb of oak, and later in the street we found the remnants: bark, chips, the entire leftover limb that had finally broken from the tree, and terrified carpenter ants running about, all scattered across the street. Pileated Woodpeckers are so enthusiastic in their foraging that they have been known to break entire trees in half with their long, rectangular excavations!

These are a special sort of bird, I believe. I feel incredibly pleased to live in an area of the country in which they too live. Their loud call reminds me of the woods of my childhood in eastern Tennessee, even when I hear it near my home in Houston. Their powerful, vigorous, undulating flight encourages me. Their odd grappling up and down a tree trunk excites me. Even the task of discovering the red stripe on the cheek of a male fills me with joy. It is fulfilling to finally see that powerful head rise into view and pause above a branch, the crest upraised, the red cheek brilliant in the sun.

Greg Lavaty
Greg Lavaty
Greg Lavaty
 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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