The Search for the Pileated Woodpecker



by Heather Kallevig

The silence of nature – if I travel far enough into a trail, I reach the spot where I can no longer hear cars, trains, or people. I am surrounded by a silent noise suspended by the breeze in dry leaves, our crunching footsteps, and staggered breathing. This is the silence of nature, and music to the ears. Suddenly a loud drumming reverberates through the forest. A resonance barely audible in the city sounds like a cacophony in the depths of Ludington State Park, Michigan. We pause, hold our breath and wait. Suddenly I see it – the rapid, undulating flight of a dark figure with a flaming red crown. It spreads its wings, lifting and dropping with each stroke. With a body resembling a pterodactyl, and the grace of an Eagle, we have found the elusive Pileated Woodpecker.



This animal, recognizable by its bright red topknot, is traceable by the massive boring holes it drills in the surrounding trees. Excavating what appears to be a birdie apartment building, pileated woodpeckers have been known to bore as many as 16 holes in a single tree. These birds make large rectangular holes, some so large and deep, they’ve been known to break small trees in half. Wary of hazards, these birds are protective species. Their holes are in different regions in the tree, offering the opportunity to flee danger. By spreading sap around their tree holes, they deter potential predators. The loud drumming we heard as we tiptoed through the forest is more than just hole digging. It is also a method for claiming territory.

Pileated woodpeckers, though relatively common in the Midwest, can be a treat for active birders and informal onlookers. One of the largest forest birds in North America, the pileated woodpecker’s are recognized by their bright white streaks, red crown, long neck, and large black bill. They’re also audibly recognizable through their loud drumming and raucous call. They depend on large dead trees for habitation, but are also known to visit backyard feeders for suet.

CSC_1485Pileated woodpeckers are distinct from most birds, though they were once very similar to another species, the ivory-billed woodpecker. This bird, once prized and sought for its “luck-giving” ivory bill and red crown, has been hunted to presumed extinction for decoration and for sport. Though the pileated woodpecker maintains a strong population, it could be at risk as old growth forests are destroyed. They are an important part of the ecosystem creating holes later inhabited by smaller birds, rodents, and bats. Their feeding holes also attract other species including House Wrens and smaller woodpeckers.

To see a pileated woodpecker, head to one of its year round locations, keep an eye out for its distinctly large holes, and wait. If you then hear the loud drumming and boisterous call, you may be in for a treat. It’s likely this fascinating bird is not far behind.

iBird West Birding App.

Kaufman, K. (2014, November 13). Pileated Woodpecker. Retrieved March 21, 2015, from

Pileated Woodpecker. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from


Who will blink first? @Heather Kallevig

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