Earth Journal

 Vol. 10, No. 9

February 28 - March 6, 2002

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In Season: Pileated Woodpecker
by Gary Pendleton

The pileated woodpecker’s raucous call rings out in the woods. It’s similar to the call of the northern flicker, but I can tell it is the pileated because the tone is lower pitched and the individual notes are more distinct. The bird’s size — about that of a crow — and its bold black, white and red plumage make it fairly conspicuous, but it is because I can usually recognize its call that I am frequently aware of its presence. In winter with no leaves to block the view and absorb the sound of the call, it is easier.

Still, sometimes it is the sound of a bird pounding and splintering the side of a tree that lets me know it is there. And sometimes I see it before it makes a sound.

In late winter, these big woodpeckers make their nests. They excavate their nest holes in large, dead trees. The openings are not round but elongated squares about three and a half inches wide, so they are easy to differentiate from other woodpecker holes.

The pileated either is or isn’t our largest North American woodpecker. The undeniable holder of that title would belong to the ivory-billed woodpecker, which bears a close resemblance to the pileated. Except there has not been a confirmed sighting of that species in about 50 years. The ivory-billed was assumed to be extirpated until a forestry student in Louisiana reported seeing a pair of the birds in 1999.

It seems unlikely that a large, charismatic animal could exist unseen for 50 years. Still, there is now a serious effort under way to determine if this never-common bird maintains a slender foothold in the U.S., as well as in Cuba, where convincing reports document a small population. Consider that ivory-billed woodpeckers need extensive stands of mature cypress forests or swampy bottom land inhospitable to humans, and you begin to appreciate the challenge of finding a creature so rare and shy.

Pileated woodpeckers are not nearly as dependent on mature forests for habitat. In recent decades, their populations have increased in many eastern states. Two factors have helped to boost their numbers: extensive reforestation since the turn of the last century, combined with the pileated’s apparent ability to adapt to smaller wood lots and second-growth forests. Today, it is no longer uncommon to see them in suburban areas and small parks.

From my reading, I gather that the pileated does not compare with the awe-inspiring sight of the ivory-billed. I sure hope the experts find those birds in Louisiana.

But I’ll make do with the smaller pleasure of walking woods and bottom lands closer to home, looking and listening for the ordinary residents. The pileated is here, it’s impressive and it’s capable of inspiring at least a minor thrill.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly