Inside the Outdoors: Two woodpeckers, two outcomes: a sad and cautionary tale
One of the most unmistakable flight habits belongs to the pileated woodpecker. It’s the largest woodpecker found in Minnesota.
Those who are dedicated to observing and appreciating birds—“bird watcher” is the common term for us—have several ways to identify the seemingly endless number of species. The most obvious is plumage, the colors and pattern of birds’ feathers. Another is vocalizing, the “songs” or characteristic sounds they make when courting, when alarmed or communicating some other message to their kind or to the world around them. The familiar chickadee says its own name, while the loud, harsh, “caw, caw” of the common crow can hardly be mistaken for any other bird.
Still another clue can be a bird’s habit of flight; the stroke and rhythm of its wingbeats, their pace or the path the bird traces as it travels from one place to another. One of the most unmistakable flight habits belongs to the pileated woodpecker. It’s the largest woodpecker found in Minnesota, crow-sized, with a distinctive rearward-pointed crest that could have been the inspiration for the signature top-knot of the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. The pileated is plumed mostly in formal black, with a white facial mask and distinctive white stripe running down its neck, its crest a bright “hi-viz” red, with a narrow bar of red extending back from its bill.
Its flight is as distinctive as its striking colors. Many birds fly a more or less linear path from one place to another. But the pileated woodpecker typically flies with an undulating, “loping gait,” propelling itself with wingbeats that give the impression of coasting and dipping between each momentum-generating down stroke. A poorly-tensioned power line that sags deeply between the utility poles might give a good visual picture of its lines of flight.
If you feed birds in winter, or just have trees nearby whose bark shelters dormant insects, you may have seen the pileated. If you do feed winter birds, its appearance to grab chunks of suet from your feeders is cause for excitement, not just due to its uniqueness within the woodpecker family, but because of its shyness. The pileated can be quite intolerant of having humans nearby. Some may become feeder-conditioned and be more accepting, but in my experience the pileated is far more shy than most other birds that reliably come to our feeders for suet, cracked corn or sunflower seeds.
On one of the recent warmer days I was returning home from running my salt and road grime-encrusted Honda Pilot through a car wash. As I neared the garage, a dark blur appeared at the edge of my peripheral vision and disappeared behind the trunk of the large maple that grows along our western property line. As I opened the car’s door—eyes fixed on the maple—the blur took flight again. Now in plain sight, the bird’s looping flight and shrill prehistoric scream left no doubt that it was a pileated woodpecker, its hasty departure consistent with its preference for privacy.
The pileated woodpecker seems a bird for all climates, being found in mature deciduous forests from western Canada eastward to the Canadian Maritime provinces, down the West Coast to central California, down the East Coast all the way to Florida, as well as the Great Lakes states and south to the Mississippi delta. It nests in the trunks of mature or dead and rotting trees, using its long, dagger-like bill to jackhammer a large cavity, one that at some future time may be used by such other creatures as tree-nesting ducks, or smaller owls. The same tool the pileated uses to excavate a nest hole is also well-suited to probing for insects, its primary food. Given the size of its “armament” and the body to drive it, it’s not surprising that a pileated woodpecker’s hammering can be heard a long way off.
The pileated woodpecker is among the 435 species painted by artist John James Audubon in his monumental work The Birds of America, published in a series of sections between 1827 and 1838. His work is classic in form, if not in the photographic-level realism seen in the work of contemporary artists. That may be some of its appeal, as you’ll find Audubon’s bird images prominently displayed as “décor” in many homes even today.
Also among these 435 species is another image that could easily be mistaken for our familiar pileated woodpecker. It is a bird virtually identical in form, but slightly different in coloration. The same basic black, red crest and white neck stripe, but also white trailing edges to its wings, and a narrow white stripe from its neck down its back.
One truly differentiating feature of this Audubon image is its white bill. Or—more in keeping with its name—its ivory bill, for this is a painting of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker. The fate of the ivory-bill is far different from the relatively common status of our pileated woodpecker. Though the two birds seem closely related in many ways, the ivory-bill evolved as a species best suited to the hardwood forests and swamp-like bottomlands of the Southeastern United States, though perhaps before European settlement as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Lumbering and land development in the 19th and early 20th centuries claimed a substantial share of its habitat, and by the turn of the 20th century the ivory-bill was a rare bird indeed. In 1935 an expedition led by Arthur Allen of New York’s Cornell University photographed and recorded the calls of a breeding pair of Ivory-bills in a remote tract of Louisiana forest, and a Cornell graduate student studied the family group there until 1939, the last undisputed images, sounds and confirmed sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker.
This tract of land, once owned by the Singer family of sewing machine fame, was logged in the 1940’s. Two hundred or more potential sightings have been claimed since that time, but none has provided undisputed evidence of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s continued existence. In September of 2021 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior officially proposed removing it from the Endangered Species List and declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.
Some remain unconvinced, and hope—some profess to truly believe—that in some remote and inaccessible corner of its former habitat a remnant remains. Extinction—whether it be the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, the Labrador duck or the ivory-billed woodpecker—is a tragically permanent thing.
Fortunate are we that our pileated woodpecker look-alike is abundant and here to be enjoyed, even as we lament the likely loss of the ivory-bill.