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Blane Klemek: Pileated woodpeckers spell doom for carpenter ants

An uncommon bird, the unmistakable woodpecker of grand proportions is a resident throughout Minnesota. From the cottonwood bottomlands of the Red River Valley to the richly forested southeastern bluff country, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its deliberate rolling manner, or heard by its thunderous drumming on trees with its bill, or identified by its distinctive hysterical call resonating through the woodlands and the gaping tree-cavities they mine so effortlessly.

Male pileated woodpecker
Male pileated woodpeckers like this one have both a red crest and a red mustache.
Contributed / Joshlaymon, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https.commons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=70700524
We are part of The Trust Project.

DETROIT LAKES — Throughout the seasons, I spend a great deal of time roaming the wilds that Minnesota and elsewhere have to offer.

For days on end, often from base camps, I hunt for deer, elk, and other game such as ruffed grouse, during the autumn months, but I also forage for berries, mushrooms, and various wild edibles whenever and wherever available. So, too, I hike the many wooded and prairie trails and tote roads for exercise and peace of mind. Indeed, nature replenishes, nature restores.

I recently spent 11 full days hunting deer on a Kittson County state wildlife management area and on land owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. This area of northwestern Minnesota is a part of the Aspen Parklands ecoregion that is characterized by quaking aspen forests, oak savannah, tallgrass prairie, and wetlands. Replete with floral and faunal richness, the region is a popular destination for botanists and birders.

1555629+3-1-pileated.jpg
A male pileated woodpecker flops around in the newly fallen snow.
SPECIAL TO DL NEWSPAPERS/Lee Kensinger

Throughout the course of my time hunting in Kittson County, I became acquainted with the resident pair of pileated woodpeckers. Of note about this special species of woodpecker, which is North America’s largest woodpecker, is the size of their territories — anywhere from 100 to 500 acres.

What’s more, unlike most other birds, mated pairs of the species stay together year ‘round while actively defending their territories. As I hunted and explored, I observed and heard the pair busily foraging on various decaying aspen trees, vocalizing to one another, and flying from one food source to another. They were constant company that I felt privileged to become acquainted with.

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An uncommon bird, the unmistakable woodpecker of grand proportions is a resident throughout Minnesota. From the cottonwood bottomlands of the Red River Valley to the richly forested southeastern bluff country, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its deliberate rolling manner, or heard by its thunderous drumming on trees with its bill, or identified by its distinctive hysterical call resonating through the woodlands and the gaping tree-cavities they mine so effortlessly.

The crow-size pileated woodpecker is indeed the largest and most impressive of our North American woodpeckers. With its solid black back, a conspicuously red crested head, and a 16- to 20-inch-long body, the woodpecker should not be confused with any other bird. The male has a red “mustache” just behind the beak, whereas the female’s version is colored black.

Pileated Woodpecker enjoying nice snowy afternoon
This pileated woodpecker was enjoying a nice snowy afternoon.
Contributed/Rob Schwartz

Its unusual name, pileated, means having a crest covering the “pileum”, or the top of the head. As many bird enthusiasts have come to appreciate, even the mere pronunciation of “pileated” is a delightfully and lively debated topic. Perhaps a more fitting and understood name would have been "red-crested giant woodpecker" or “great woodpecker,” or the like.

It's easy to tell where pileated woodpeckers have been if you happen to be exploring its preferred haunts of deciduous or mixed woodlands. The enormous woodpecker excavates notable elongated cavities into dead and dying trees. Some might wonder why they go to the trouble of carving out such exceedingly deep excavations, but as with all woodpeckers, they do so mostly to procure food. In the case of pileated woodpeckers, carpenter ants are the main entrée.

A tree pileated woodpeckers have visited
Wood chips on the snow indicate recent activity in the winter woods. Pileated woodpeckers create these rectangular holes in order to get at insects. Nest holes have a much smaller entrance.
Contributed / Emily Stone

Once a pileated woodpecker begins working on an ant infested tree, there is little an ant or any other wood-boring insect can do to escape. Equipped with a chisel-shaped beak and powerful head and neck muscles to back it up, not to mention a long, barbed, and sticky tongue used to snatch crawly critters, a pileated woodpecker visits and revisits selected trees until the food source has been exhausted. As it is, many an old elm, aspen, or stately cottonwood, long after having died, are reduced to cavity-riddled snags from years of pileated woodpecker borings.

Such a grand bird of the forest, it is no small wonder that we human admirers turn our heads to marvel at the sight and sound of this incredible bird. We can rest assured that if there’s wood in the woods, there will be pileated woodpeckers to observe as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Related Topics: NORTHLAND OUTDOORSBLANE KLEMEK
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