Text and Photo
               by Robin Follette

     It’s almost quiet around here these days. We’ve passed the halfway point of winter and the sun is up long enough to enjoy a time outdoors before or after work. I’ve taken to the woods on snowshoes as well as cleated boots to see what’s happening. It would be quiet if it weren’t for the sweet “chick-a-dee” and “phoebe” from the chickadees, nasally “yank-yank” from red breasted nuthatches, and the almost non-stop “wuk wuk wuk” from three pileated woodpeckers. Their volume matches their large bodies. “Wuk wuk wuk” from the trees over my head, off in the distance, and as they’re flying. We have a resident pair as well as a third bird that’s spending the winter. 

     Pileated woodpeckers have a 150- to 200-acre territory, so owners of smaller woodlots won’t have many pairs. It isn’t unusual to have more than one pair in winter, but come spring the visitors will be driven away if they don’t leave voluntarily. One spring a few years ago, I dreamed of cutting down every big tree in the woodlot to get some peace and quiet while gardening. One female and two males make for a lot of arguments and banging out of territory. Both males wanted to nest in a maple tree struck by lightning. Their dispute went on for nearly a week.

     The largest of native woodpeckers, they stand 16 to 19 inches tall. Both male and female have red caps. Look closely at the end of the bill, along the cheek for a red streak that indicates a male. In late April, males begin three to six weeks of excavating a nest. Females pitch in but males do most of that work. Males excavating will return to the same spot, making it clear they aren’t simply hunting for ants, larva and other insects. Woodchips around the base of the tree area will likely catch your eye before you see the nest. Pileated woodpeckers make a rectangular rather than round hole in large dead trees or large dead branches in live trees – and sometimes in fallen trees. It’s important to leave standing deadwood, but if the tree is a hazard it can be removed when the young have fledged. They might roost in an old nest occasionally, but seldom reuse them. 

     Pileateds hatch and raise three to five offspring once a year. If you haven’t found a nest to watch (from a distance) you might hear the young begging for food as you walk. They can easily be mistaken for a chattering red squirrel. If the squirrel doesn’t sound quite right, it’s probably woodpeckers. Their call is slower and raspier. As nestlings grow and the nest becomes crowded, you might see them poking out. 

     I’ve read that you can encourage these woodpeckers to come feed by offering suet. I always have at least one suet hanging, but have yet to see a pileated. They land in trees 25 feet away but show no interest in feeders. Perhaps it’s too near the house. If you’d like to get a good look, you might try hanging suet in an open space elsewhere. Have your camera ready – they’re obliging models!

Robin Follette is an outdoors writer from Talmadge. She enjoys kayaking, camping, hunting, fishing and wild harvesting. Her website is
Posted in: Wildlife
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