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Pilieated woodpecker: Remarkable bird from a remarkable family

Pileated woodpecker

Woodpeckers are remarkable birds, and in our area none is more remarkable than the pileated woodpecker.

This is the largest, by far, of the six woodpecker species that occur here regularly, nearly the size of a crow.

What's more, the pileated woodpecker is loud. Both its raucous calls and heavy drumming can carry for quite great distances.

And it's showy. The bird is black overall but with striking white patches on the back and wings. These show in flight, giving the bird a sharply contrasting, two-toned appearance.

Close up, the bird's red crest is easily visible. This, in fact, is the signature of the pileated woodpecker. Walt Disney reportedly adopted it to create Woody Woodpecker.

Male and female pileated woodpeckers can be distinguished by the amount of red on their heads. Both sexes have the red crest, but in the male, it extends over the forehead to the bill. Males also have a red stripe below the beak.

Pileated woodpecker behavior is also conspicuous. The birds excavate large holes for nesting. When feeding, they frequently chisel huge rectangular gashes in trees, sometimes big enough to endanger the life of the tree. This digging exposes their food, various kinds of grubs and ants that live inside the trees.

But it has an unintended consequence. Woodpeckers are the housing developers of the bird world. The cavities they excavate are eagerly inhabited by a variety of songbirds, from chickadees to bluebirds and many others.

In our area, pileated woodpeckers are residents, meaning they are here throughout the year. Yet they are not common. Instead, a few birds are seen by many observers in a fairly large territory.

Nevertheless, pileated woodpeckers seem to be increasing. Probably, this is related to the health of the forest along the Red River. American elms predominate there, and many are dead or dying of Dutch elm disease. The other common tree in our area is the cottonwood, and these forest giants are aging -- making them attractive to pileated woodpeckers, as well. Trees in rural shelterbelts also have reached maturity, and pileated woodpeckers have spread out into the countryside, where formerly they were restricted to areas of natural forests.

Two other trends have probably helped the pileated woodpecker population in our area, as well. One is the human habit of feeding birds. Pileated woodpeckers come to suet feeders. The other, perhaps more important, is the widespread planting of ornamental fruit trees. Pileated woopeckers -- and other wintering birds such as waxwings and robins -- are fond of crabapples left to weather on the branch.

The pileated woodpecker is preeminently a bird of the eastern hardwood forests, and it occurs across most of the continent east of the Great Plains, and across the continent in Canada's boreal forests. The northern Red River Valley has been at the edge of the pileated woodpecker's range.

Two other woodpecker species are resident here, the hairy and downy woodpeckers. Both of these are common year 'round, though they are much more frequently seen in winter.

Red-bellied woodpeckers have moved into the area from the south and east, and they are increasingly seen at winter feeding operations. Still, they are not yet common.

Northern flickers, the ground-lovers among woodpeckers, show up here in late March. Some nest here, but the larger number move farther north.

Red-headed woodpeckers are present each summer, sometimes spectacularly, as in 2009, when a pair established territory on the Red River Greenway not far from downtown Grand Forks.

The area's sixth woodpecker species is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, whose habits, as the name suggests, are different than its relatives.

Not far to the east and north, other forest-dwelling woodpeckers occur.

Woodpeckers share several important adaptations to lives spent pounding on hard wood. Their feet allow them to cling closely to the trunks of trees; their stiff tail feathers serve as braces. The musculature of their heads and necks allow them to absorb the sharp blows made by their chisel-like bills. And their tongues are remarkably long so that they can snake into openings in the wood -- plus they're sticky so that elusive insects adhere to them, providing sustenance to the woodpeckers.