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Blane Klemek column: Pileated woodpecker can hollow out trees like a buzzsaw

A red-headed pileated woodpecker looking for a meal. Photo by Don Henise.

All winter long I've enjoyed watching a pair of oversized birds making quick work of the softball-sized suet balls hanging from my backyard shepherd's hook.

And while I'm not happy that the balls of animal fat cost me upwards of a four dollar bill apiece, wild birds of all kinds, sizes, and shapes can't pass up pecking on pure suet.

The most conspicuous bird of all, especially when observed near objects where one can accurately gauge size-of-scale, is a bird of remarkable likeness of none other than the famous cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker — that is, our own real-life pileated woodpecker.

And though the cartoon variety was actually inspired by the acorn woodpecker of western and southwestern United States, many people agree that the fictional character Woody and the factual character Pileated look more alike than does the comparatively smaller and crestless acorn woodpecker.

Indeed, its unusual name, pileated, means having a crest covering the pileum, or, in other words, a crest on top of the head.

However you pronounce this bird's name, whether you say "pill-ee-ate-ed" or "pile-ee-ate-ed" or "pile-ate-ed," the pileated woodpecker is among one of the most uncommon, yet unmistakable and recognizable birds of Minnesota.

A year-around avian resident that inhabits woodlands from the Red River Valley to the southeastern corner of the state, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its telltale undulating way, or heard by its powerful drumming on trees with its bill, or by its maniacal call that resonates through forests and woodlands alike.

Often described as "crow-sized," the pileated woodpecker is the largest of all our North American woodpeckers. With its solid black back, a conspicuously red crested head, and a 16-inch to 19½-inch long body (which is pretty much the exact size of the American crow), the pileated woodpecker is rarely confused with any other wild bird. As well, the male has a red "mustache" just behind the beak, whereas the female's marking is colored black, not red.

Even if you don't observe or hear an actual pileated woodpecker in its natural environment, it's nevertheless easy to tell where a pileated woodpecker has been, if you happen to be exploring its preferred habitat of deciduous or mixed forests. The enormous woodpecker has the impressive habit of excavating elongated and distinctive cavities into dead and dying trees.

I once observed a completely excavated dead basswood tree that was literally mined from the base of the tree to the height of over 12 feet above the ground! There were so many wood chips on the forest floor it looked as if someone had been there with a Wood-Mizer cutting logs into boards. It was incredible.

Upon examining such impressive cavities, you might wonder why pileated woodpeckers go to so much trouble carving out such deep and extensive holes into dead and dying trees. Are they making a cavity for nesting? Are they pounding the tree to advertise territorial boundaries? Or are they looking for food?

The fact is, these secretive birds hollow out trees for all of these reasons, but primarily for food. The enormous woodpeckers seek carpenter ants, which are large wood inhabiting ants that chew galleries and nest inside wood.

Equipped with a chisel-shaped beak, not to mention a long, barbed, and sticky tongue used to snatch up hapless insects, a pileated woodpecker visits and revisits selected trees until the food source has been exhausted. Many a large elm or stately cottonwood, long after having died, is reduced to cavity-riddled trunks from years of woodpecker borings.

Pileated woodpeckers maintain large territories and regularly visit partially excavated trees. I have often observed individual pileated woodpeckers flying through areas of different forests, vocalizing as they fly, and then landing on their favorite trees.

I recall a time many Octobers ago while hunting deer from a tree, a pileated woodpecker flew within a dozen or so feet of me. The great bird flapped its large and powerful wings as it swooped upwards to land on the trunk of a nearby aspen tree.

The force of its landing made the sound of a loud "whump," as I watched the bird prop itself upright with its stiff tail feathers and grip the bark with its four-toed feet. Following a thorough search of the area as the bird moved its head looking from side to side, it lofted itself airborne again, calling loudly as it flew, and was gone.

It occurred to me that the fascinating-looking bird was probably patrolling its territory — making the rounds, so to speak. No doubt the woodpecker was intimately familiar with everything about its home: from where all the best food trees were located, to old cavities it might have used in the past, to possible future food and nesting trees, and much more.

Mated pairs of pileated woodpeckers share a territory that can exceed 200 acres. A clutch of four eggs is typically laid inside a tree cavity that they construct. These nests are often two feet deep and up to 70 feet above ground.

And when cavities they build are eventually abandoned, they are almost always used by other species of birds and mammals for a wide variety of uses, including nesting and shelter.

For sure, few other birds in Minnesota, and certainly no other woodpecker, are as unique and interesting a bird as the pileated woodpecker. Whether you call the bird Woody the Woodpecker or any number of pronunciations of its common name matters not, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.