I saw my first pileated woodpecker at a place called Caney Creek in the Ouachita National Forest in western Arkansas. My wife and I were on an overnight backpacking trip that was part of our research for a book on hiking and backpacking in the southern mountains. We defined southern mountains to include the Ozarks and Ouachitas as well as the Appalachians.
Caney Creek flows through a small–14,433 acres–wilderness area. The creek was ankle deep in September 1974 when we hiked it. Flood debris lodged in trees along the banks showed that it had been at least waist deep the previous spring.
A pair of pileateds kept us company for most of a morning as we walked a path that hugged the banks of the creek. They were not difficult to see. They flew from tree to tree, banging on bark to uncover food, calling loudly and frequently to each other.
Pileated woodpeckers are about the size of crows. They are black bodied–though there is a substantial amount of white on the undersides of the wings and flecks of white near the wing tips on the upper side. Their heads are crowned with a large flaming red crest. The sides of their heads are boldly patterned in black-and-white stripes, and they have a long white stripe running down each side of their necks. The red on the male’s crest covers the forehead as well as the crown, and there is a small patch of red on the cheek. Those areas are black on the female.
And they are noisy. Their usual call is a maniacal laugh rather like a flicker’s, but much louder. Their beaks are capable of dislodging chips of wood six inches across, so when they drum on a hollow log to proclaim a nesting or feeding territory you can hear it a long way off.
My experience suggests that they have the general heedlessness of woodpeckers. As a group, these birds don’t seem to care if anybody sees them. Their feeding habits involve searching the bare trunks and large branches of trees–rather than sneaking around amid the sheltering leaves like warblers and vireos. And they uncover their food by banging on the bark with their beaks, a noisy procedure that is bound to attract attention. However, several writers have described pileateds as wary and difficult to approach, so maybe the birds we saw were not typical.
My next pileated was later that autumn. We were on another overnight trip, this one in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. We were sitting with our backs against a tree watching the sun go down over a mountain when a pileated landed noisily near the top of a 20-foot snag, the remains of what was once a much larger tree. The bird was not more than 40 feet from us, and it banged away on that snag without paying any attention to the two humans sitting nearby.
Since then I have seen pileated woodpeckers in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan and on trips to Arkansas to see my wife’s parents. Our last sighting was two days before Christmas along the White River just south of Mountain Home, Arkansas.
But I have never seen this large, noisy, conspicuous bird in the Chicago area. It is very rare around here, but there are sightings from time to time. I wonder why it is so elusive.
The latest sighting was along the Des Plaines River in Lake County at the Ryerson Conservation Area near Deerfield. A long stretch of the Des Plaines in Lake and northern Cook counties is part of their forest-preserve systems. The woods along the river should be good habitat for pileated woodpeckers, but for reasons unknown the birds are rarely seen.
There have also been sightings in recent years in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve in Elk Grove Village and in the Palos preserves. But these too are irregular and elusive birds.
Pileated woodpeckers were once common over the whole of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada as far west as the prairies. Populations declined seriously after the cutting of forests over much of their range. The bird had completely disappeared from whole states around the turn of the century. But as forests grew back in previously logged areas, the pileated woodpecker returned. Today the species lives in almost any good-sized woodland in eastern North America.
Presumably the job of recolonizing the species’ former range fell to young birds. Pileated woodpeckers are sedentary. Pairs seem to occupy a nesting and feeding territory year round, but young birds have been known to wander up to 50 miles in search of territories of their own.
The territorial behavior is a variation on a common woodpecker stratagem. Downy woodpeckers hold nesting territories in summer. In winter each individual bird holds its own territory. A downy will attack its own mate if it trespasses on a winter feeding territory.
If we had actual nesting pairs of pileateds around here, it seems likely that somebody would notice. The birds engage in noisy, conspicuous courtship dances. Their drumming on hollow logs is louder than that of any other woodpecker, and individual birds have been known to keep drumming for up to an hour.
The nesting process begins with the excavation of a nest hole. Given the size of the bird, the hole has to be quite large. The entrance is typically more or less triangular and measures nearly five inches across at the base. The interior cavity measures about 8 inches across and anywhere from 10 to 30 inches deep.
The job of excavating this huge cavity is shared by both members of the pair and may take as long as 30 days. Once the eggs are laid, incubation takes another 18 days. The young are born naked and helpless. Their eyes don’t open until they are eight days old. It is some weeks before the young are mature enough to leave the nest, and the parents continue to feed them for some time after their departure. The literature is vague on exactly how long it takes for a young bird to develop to the point of independence, which suggests that nobody has published any precise counts. This may reflect the difficulty involved in finding out what is happening inside a nesting cavity that may be 60 feet up in a dead tree. (I should note that pileateds are among the birds known to move their eggs if their nest is damaged. A female pileated was once observed doing this after a storm blew the lid off her nesting cavity.)
If pileated woodpeckers are nesting somewhere in northeastern Illinois, it does seem that at least one member of our army of local birders would have noticed some part of this long nesting process. But so far we have no such reports.
Pileateds have nested in recent years in Indiana Dunes State Park. The first summer sighting of a pair was in 1985. For many years before that the nearest known nesting location was in Berrien County, Michigan. Berrien is the southwesternmost county in the state, so it is not a very big jump from there to the dunes. The return of this species to the dunes may reflect the expansion in uninhabited woods that has followed the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
With populations of this species to the south, east, and north, it seems like we ought to have a nice settled population in northeastern Illinois. Maybe our woods are just not big enough.
A check of historical records suggests that maybe they never were. In Birds of the Chicago Region by Edward R. Ford, a book originally published in 1934, the pileated woodpecker is described as “a rare resident in the past.” Most of the specimens–and sight records–mentioned in the text were of winter birds, individuals that may have been wanderers in search of a home rather than settled breeders.
The range of the pileated woodpecker ended at the western edge of the forest. Unlike smaller woodpeckers such as the downy, these birds do not breed in small groves of trees, and they do not feed on open ground the way flickers do. Perhaps the native landscape of northeastern Illinois–prairies broken by scattered oak groves and strips of forest along the rivers–was never attractive to this species. I think we all tend to assume that the absence of any element of the natural world from our region is the result of the changes we have made in the land, but that is not always the case.
However, the riddle of the pileated does point out that destroying a natural landscape is rather like burning a library. There is much that we can never learn because the knowledge perished with the land.