Moments after the red-crested forest ghost landed on the pine tree with the suet bird feeder perhaps 50 feet away, another more distant rattling call resonated through the woods, silencing the constant chatter of a squirrel protesting the intruder. Another three second burst of loud tree whacking confirmed that a mate was near-by.
Welcome to the world of the pileated woodpecker, perhaps the most striking forest bird of Idaho. The pileated woodpecker is a year-round resident of Idaho and is easily and quickly recognized by its black body, white stripes down the neck, and the most easily identifiable markings: its brilliant flame-red crest. No other bird boasts these markings, and the pileated woodpecker is indeed a very big woodpecker with its 30-inch wingspan.
With a bit of practice it is easy to tell the male from the female; the males have a noticeable patch of red feathers that run from the back of the bill across the cheek area to a point under the eye. It’s just a black patch of feathers in the same area for the females. Both the male and female are from 15 to 19 inches long.
The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest woodpecker species in North America and its look is unmistakable — a large black bird with white on each side of its neck and a red crest on its head. When it flies, white flashes are visible under its wings.
The sound of the pileated woodpecker’s hammering carries a long distance through the woods where they live. They drum to attract mates and to establish the boundaries of their territory — warning other males away.
They use their beaks to pick and dig under bark to find carpenter ants, beetle larvae, and other insects and will often dig large, rectangular holes in trees to uncover their meals. Some holes are so big that they weaken small, young trees. The birds also strip pieces of bark from trees looking for food. Generally, however, pileated woodpeckers help keep a forest healthy by eating wood-boring insects.
Woodpeckers beat on trees for three main reasons: to forage for food, to excavate a nest cavity, and to drum for communication. The first two are relatively quiet affairs, done slowly and deliberately. The third is as loud as possible. Woodpeckers prefer the resonant acoustics of a hollow trunk or branch on which to drum — or a stove pipe or rain gutter — to make sure that their message gets across loud and clear. Both male and females drum.
A nesting pair of pileated woodpeckers usually makes a nesting hole in a large, older tree. During the day, both parents take turns incubating, or sitting on the eggs to keep them warm. At night only the male incubates the eggs. They generally lay four eggs at a time, which take about two weeks to hatch. I look forward to spring when the young pileated woodpeckers hatch with their flame red crested topnotch all looking out of the nest impatiently waiting for food.
Enjoy the outdoors in Boundary County!