Wood-hen in the hood

The bird already possessed a common name; and it is a pity that Latham did not know it. In its native land it was, and still is, commonly called, the log-cock…and because of its cackling cry, “wood-hen,” “laughing woodpecker,”…

~in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1939

My father called them wood hens and taught me to pay attention to their distinctive call when we were out deer hunting. When they called, it usually meant something was moving in the woods nearby, maybe a deer. Their most accepted common name is Pileated Woodpecker, and I have enjoyed seeing and hearing them ever since those days as a kid prowling the woods. We are lucky to have several that make our slice of forest heaven their home and we see them frequently, often very close to the house. The scientific name, Dryocopus pileatus, means tree cleaver with a crest, a great summary of its distinctive looks and habits. They are creatures of the forest, and prefer tracts of large trees, for both nesting cavities and foraging.

A male Pileated Woodpecker perched on a snag (click photos to enlarge)

They are our largest woodpecker, from 16-19 inches in length (about the size of a crow). The Birds of the World Online compendium describes them as a keystone species as they play a crucial role in many forest ecosystems in North America by excavating large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are subsequently used by a diverse array of birds and mammals—for shelter and nesting. They typically excavate nest holes near the tops of large standing dead trees which are later used by a variety of other woodland creatures like Wood Ducks, Southern Flying Squirrels, and Eastern Screech Owls. Their large size and stout, chisel-like bills enable them to break open tree trunks and fallen logs in search of their favorite prey, large ants (like Carpenter Ants) and beetle grubs. This incessant chipping away at forest pillars undoubtedly helps speed the process of decomposition and forest recycling of nutrients and provides access for a variety of other woodland creatures that might feed on invertebrates associated with decaying trees and logs. I have watched deer, robins, and squirrels scratch in the wood chips and poke into holes created by these woodpeckers as they search for a tasty morsel.

The chisel-like bill can blow apart a tree trunk like a shotgun blast

As we walk our woods, we find plenty of evidence of their presence even when we don’t see or hear them. We have many large dead trees and a substantial crop of fallen logs that provide feeding sites for our woodpeckers. I have recently found numerous big branches, stumps, and logs that look like someone took a hatchet to them and splintered them into hundreds of pieces with some of the wood chips measuring 4 and 5 inches in length.

A large branch on the ground splintered by woodpecker activity
A small tree trunk has been chipped away by a Pileated Woodpecker

When I got my second trail camera (we have two Browning Strike Force PRO XD trail cameras), I was eager to set it up on a large log down slope from our house that had recent woodpecker activity. I left the camera up two days, attached to a tree about 6 feet from the log. When I retrieved it, I could tell the woodpecker had been there as there were new chips scattered along the length of the log. The camera captured over two hours of feeding activity by a male Pileated Woodpecker along with day-time visits by a few other species (American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Gray Squirrel). I have included two clips that highlight some of the more interesting behaviors (view full screen with sound up)…

Pileated Woodpecker pounding on fallen log and calling
Slow motion clip of woodpecker eating a large beetle grub

At night, the log continued to draw the attention of forest neighbors including a Red Fox, White-tailed deer, Raccoon, and a very energetic mouse.

The nocturnal log is also active

The first few clips after dark showed nothing, but the next in the series revealed a very fast mouse was the culprit. In some clips it was triggering the camera but disappearing before it was recorded. And all this is happening on just one log in the forest. I can’t wait to see what else the cameras reveal.

Persistent Pileated

He seldom gave more than three or four pecks at a time, and would then swing his head round to one side or the other, sometimes raising his scarlet crest.

~O. M. Bryens, on watching a pileated woodpecker feeding

Spent a few days at my folk’s place in Damascus this week, enjoying the beautiful mountain setting, and celebrating somebody’s 85th birthday. A couple of days before we arrived, my Dad spotted a pileated woodpecker working on a stump near his garage.

Stump chiseled by pileated

Stump that has been hammered by a pileated woodpecker (click photos to enlarge)

We walked out toward the garage the first afternoon and a huge bird exploded from the ground where it was feeding. Had this been at home, I would have spent the next couple of days sitting in a blind hoping to get some close ups.  But, when you are visiting, you can only grab a camera every now and then hoping to get a shot.

pileated woodpecker on stump

Pileated woodpecker is wary of my approach

Luckily, this particular bird announces its arrival with the typical pileated call. I was inside the house and heard it on the second afternoon. So, I grabbed the camera, eased out the door, walked around the house, and tried to sneak up on the stump. The pileated saw me, moved up the stump and glared at me, then hopped back down and resumed chiseling. But, it was not clearly visible from where i stood, so I took a couple of more steps. And that was it…I had pressed the issue a bit too far, and off it flew. I saw it return a few more times, but decided to not disturb it. I’m not sure what it was after. Carpenter ants are a favorite food, but the holes in the stump look more like some sort of boring beetle larvae was the culprit (or maybe carpenter worms, a type of moth larva).

pileated woodpecker on stump head shot

Male pileated woodpecker showing the red stripe on the side of the face

This bird is a male, showing the red stripe coming off the back side of the bill. When it flew, it went across the road up near my folks’ rental cottage to a stand of large trees, undoubtedly where the nest tree is located. This area has a rich bird life due to the mixture of forest, meadows, and the river down below the property.


View from one side of the wraparound porch at the Country Cottage

And that reminds me…my folks have a rental property that is situated in the mountains near Damascus, VA. It is close to great hiking, fishing, and the famous Virginia Creeper Trail, a bicycle trail that runs from Whitetop to Abingdon. The bird life is abundant, it is not far from my favorite Virginia State Park (Grayson Highlands), and there is beauty to be found any time of year. If interested in a peaceful mountain getaway, check it out at their web site, the Country Cottage.