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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Another winter woodpecker shows itself

Pileated woodpecker.. (Mike Jacobs)1 / 2
Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I know this makes two woodpeckers in a row.

And yeah, I remember the fuss some of you made about a series of owls as bird of the week.

Well, I've got two reasons to make the pileated woodpecker bird of the week, and both of them are good ones.

A gentleman stopped me in a downtown coffee shop last week and asked about the crow-sized woodpecker he had seen, so I knew there was interest in pileated woodpeckers.

Then I saw one.

It's amazing how often this happens. A bird comes to mind — brought there by someone's question sometimes and sometimes by idle musings. It's because the idea of a bird prepares the brain to recognize it when it's seen.

I don't expect to see pileated woodpeckers at my place west of Gilby, N.D., but the big bird flying across a hayfield was clearly a pileated woodpecker. This wasn't difficult to determine. The bird was big, to begin with, as big as a crow. But it was evidently not a crow, because it showed much white in its wings.

A crow-sized bird with white wing linings is a pileated woodpecker.

That's not the only field mark, though, and this bird had other marks of a pileated woodpecker. It was a bulky bird, not streamlined as a crow would appear to be. Plus, it had a big head, or seemed to.

Both of these are good marks of a pileated woodpecker in flight.

Up close, the pileated woodpecker displays other definitive clues to its identity. One of these is the conspicuous crest on the back of its head. This gives it the big-headed look. Another is the rather long neck and the white stripe that runs along it. This is interrupted by a slash of red on male birds; females lack this mark. It's another of the "sexual badges," such as the red patch on the throat of male downy woodpeckers, but not females.

This was not the first pileated woodpecker on my list for Wheatfield Township, the civil subdivision in which our property is located (and the geographic limit of one of my bird lists). One year, a ravenous pileated woodpecker pretty nearly stripped all of the fruit from a crabapple tree. The tree has died and was removed, and no pileated has shown up since.

Occasionally, one of my neighbors will mention seeing a pileated woodpecker. Most of these reports are in fall and winter, probably because the birds are prospecting for territory.

Pileated woodpeckers are territorial, like hairy and downy woodpeckers, but unlike red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-shafted flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which are migratory.

Territorial doesn't mean sedentary, however. Pileated woodpeckers do move around. More pileated woodpeckers are seen in the city of Grand Forks in winter than in other seasons, for example. Two explanations come to mind. One is that the birds prefer privacy for nesting, which takes them out of the city. The other is that they move into town in winter because food is easier to find in backyards than it is in open forests.

Young birds of many species wander about, as well, and I take last week's Wheatfield woodpecker as evidence that pileated woodpeckers had pretty good nesting success this year. That would force young-of-the-year birds away from prime nesting areas in search of places to establish their own territory.

Pileated woodpeckers prefer forests that have passed maturity. This means dead trees with substantial trunks. These provide the food pileated woodpeckers most relish—boring insects. Plus they are easily converted into nesting holes, which pileated woodpeckers require. Wheatfield Township is not a forested area, but some mature field shelterbelts may present opportunities for the woodpeckers.

Pileated woodpeckers attract attention wherever they go, both by their size and by their habits. A pileated woodpecker makes short work of a dead tree, reducing a substantial trunk to a pile of chips in an afternoon. The birds are well known for their distinctive rhythmic tapping, a courtship ritual, and for their laugh-like calls — the inspiration for the cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker.

The pileated woodpecker is North America's largest woodpecker, assuming the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct. The pileated range is like the letter U turned upside down, with the extensions anchored on both coasts and the arc passing through Canada south of the tree line. The Red River Valley is at the western edge of the woodpecker's eastern range.