By Mary Henzi
Who doesn’t remember that pesky bird created by Walter Lantz in the 1940s? “Woody” has survived and evolved over a long period of time, and I won’t bore you with the details but for one: Walter Lantz and his wife were vacationing in a cabin in the woods when they were kept awake all night long by a very noisy woodpecker, hard at work. When it began to rain, they discovered that the noisy fellow had made several holes in the roof of their cabin. Walter made the best of the situation by turning that pesky Pileated (pronounced pie – lee – ate – ed) Woodpecker into a the loveable and rascalish cartoon character we’ve all come to know and love.
So, Woody Woodpecker is based on the beautiful bird we are so fortunate to see regularly here in Lake in the Clouds. (No, their call is not the “Heh-heh-heh-HEH-heh” call that “Woody” makes but a strong wick-uh, wick-uh, wick-uh.) The crow sized Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in eastern North America except for the Ivorybill (which is considered extinct but may not be – long story for another day). If you have ever seen one, it is a real treat, not only because of their size, but also due to their behavior and appearance. I had seen Pileateds on birding excursions in Florida, but one of my most memorable sightings was in a State Park in Westchester county NY. I went there often to take walks after work and one day, I heard a chopping sound and saw fist sized chunks of wood flying through the air. I thought someone was perhaps chopping up an old log for firewood until I saw this magnificent bird ripping a dead log to shreds with his large strong beak. It was an incredibly impressive sight. For a birder, it is a thrill to see such a bird in action. On another walk in those same woods, a year or so later, my husband and I witnessed two Pileateds playing what seemed like a hide and seek or tag game around the circumference of a large tree which must have been 4 ft. in diameter. We stood within 5 yards of these creatures (as did several other people) while those two obliviously performed their mating dance. This is a highly unusual sighting as Pileateds tend to be quite shy of people and many times will only honor you with a brief glimpse. I believe the reason we were so fortunate was the fact that the birds were so smitten with each other, that they had no idea we were there.
If you have not yet spied one of these exceptional creatures in your LITC backyard, here’s what to look for. Although they are the size and color of a crow, the resemblance stops there. They will not sit on the branch of a tree but cling to the trunk in typical woodpecker fashion. Their heads are distinctly triangular in shape with a large sharp beak and a prominent red cap. The male and female are similar except the female’s red crest is smaller and the male has a red cheek patch or moustache. They also have white linings under their wings which are visible when they are in flight and when the wing is extended.
Even if you’ve never seen one, you see the evidence of their presence everywhere. They make large, distinctly rectangular holes in trees. There are some particularly prominent examples of the Pileated Woodpecker’s handy work in a dead tree along Lake in the Clouds Road. If you watch carefully, you will see exactly what I’m talking about as the holes are quite large.
The Pileated Woodpeckers favorite food is carpenter ants (60% of their diet), so if there is one going to town on your house, take heed. They also eat the larvae of boring tree beetles and fruits and nuts. You may even be fortunate enough to have one visit your suet feeder.
We all can identify the sound of a woodpecker working in the woods. The smaller woodpeckers make a rapid pecking sound, but since the Pileated is much larger, their pecking (actually sounds more like knocking) is much louder and solid with an extra beat between knocks.
Pileated Woodpeckers mate for life and excavate a new nest each year. It is a hole which can be 10 to 24 inches deep, located high in a tree up to 70 feet above ground. (Roosts, or where they sleep tend to differ from nests in that they have more than one exit to escape predators), Both parents incubate four (but it can range from 1 to 6) eggs for 18 days and cooperate to feed the newborns. Fledglings are ready to leave the nest within 4 weeks but may stay with the parents until Fall. Pileated Woodpeckers do not migrate and can be found throughout all of North America. They aggressively defend a territory from 1000 to 4000 acres, so if you see a Pileated Woodpecker here in LITC, it is probably one of a local nesting pair.
Like many other species, they were highly endangered at the turn of the 20th century due to over hunting and habitat loss, but they have made a strong comeback. Although they are no longer on the endangered list, they are protected.
There is no end to the delights one will discover in our environs here in LITC, but the Pileated Woodpecker is high on the list of thrills. Keep your eyes and ears open and there is no doubt that you will eventually be blessed with a glimpse of this regal bird.
If he is laughing at you, put some salt on his tail and contact Universal Studios with a ransom note. If he just gives his loud old wick-uh, wick-uh, sit back, watch, listen and hope he’s not having dinner on your roof.