PHOTO COURTESY OF GARRY KESSLER
Pileated woodpeckers at a nest hole, with the female outside and the male inside.
March 27, 2020, Page A4
By Annie Reid
Westborough Community Land Trust
Pileated woodpeckers in our forests
What’s to see in nature during the sometimes-dreary days of late winter and early spring? Woodpeckers, for one, and if you’re lucky, you might glimpse the biggest and loudest of them all: the crow-sized pileated woodpecker.
All our woodpeckers typically stay year-round in our area. Without leaves on the trees, you can spot woodpeckers more easily now than in other seasons. And better yet, as the days lengthen, you can also hear woodpeckers as they prepare for the breeding season by – you guessed it – drumming.
In the case of pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus; or "pileateds" for short), both males and females drum by pecking on wood, the hollower, the better. Drumming is their method of long-distance communication.
A pair lives all year on a large territory. Pileated woodpeckers are mostly black with a red crest, but males have a red forehead and red cheek stripe. Male and female spend the nights in separate roosting holes and may get together during the day, especially in the breeding season. A territory is used for feeding and breeding. It covers 150 -250 acres, so that’s a reason we don’t often see them.
Besides drumming, there are other reasons for pileated woodpeckers to peck. You might hear loud pecking when a pileated woodpecker hammers away at a tree to find food or to dig a nest hole or roost hole. Drumming is fast, with the bird using its head and neck.
In excavating, the bird puts its whole body into pounding with its chisel-like beak, and the sound is slower. If you’re out on wooded trails and notice large wood chips on the ground, look up – you might spot a pileated woodpecker’s characteristic rectangular hole.
You’ve probably heard the question: why don’t woodpeckers, including pileateds, get headaches or concussions from their pounding? The answer involves skull bones that are built so they act as shock absorbers and a muscle-and-bone arrangement (hyoid apparatus) that acts as a seatbelt for the skull and brain, so the brain doesn’t slam back and forth. Researchers have studied woodpeckers for ideas about how to design better protective helmets for people.
What food makes all the pounding worthwhile? Pileateds specialize in eating carpenter ants, which nest in colonies deep inside dead trees and logs. These ants chew wood to make nest chambers but don’t actually feed on wood. Instead, the ants eat sap, dead insects, and aphid honeydew. Pileated woodpeckers also consume woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and wild fruit. In winter, you might lure a pileated to a birdfeeder with suet.
Pileated woodpeckers are specialized to cling to tree trunks while they peck for food and shelter. They have stiff, strong tail feathers that help them brace and balance while pecking. Their feet are different from those of songbirds. Pileateds have four toes, with two facing forward and two facing backward. The two backward-facing toes help them grip bark and brace for pecking. In contrast, songbirds have three forward-facing toes and one backward-facing toe – good for perching.
Look for pileated woodpeckers in forests with large trees. These birds have become more common as forests have regrown in Massachusetts. All their excavating in dead and dying wood benefits forest dwellers by creating holes that other animals eventually use. Pileateds also spread fungal spores as they peck on different trees, and the growing fungi soften wood, making it easier to peck and also hastening the natural decay and recycling of wood in the forest.