By Rich Crete
Hey Bird Guy! My daughter says she saw a woodpecker that was as big as an eagle. Any chance that’s accurate? -W.L. of Bloomingdale
Hmmmm, it’s very likely your daughter saw a huge woodpecker, W. L. but they are not quite as big as an eagle. We are lucky enough to have Pileated Woodpeckers living here. They are large woodpeckers indeed. It would be more accurate to say they are hawk or crow size birds. It is not unusual to think these birds are larger than that because they are so striking. I’ve actually had adults describe their size to me by holding their hands three feet apart. (I’ll bet the last fish they caught wasn’t that big either). They are actually about 16.5 inches long. (Them: “No…the one I saw was waaaaay bigger” Me: “uh huh”). They have black backs, long necks, white and black striped faces and a large bright red cap with a crest. Their call sounds like something you’d expect to hear in the jungle, almost a maniacal laugh. Pileateds are non-migratory. In flight these large woodpeckers are very graceful. Their wings make a rowing motion and they look like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.
They are often seen in pairs. On males look for a single red stripe “mustache” line extending from the lower mandible. That line is black on females. I’d be willing to bet your daughter saw the bird beneath the canopy since that’s where they usually forage. You might even locate a nest in an old telephone pole.
Like most woodpeckers they have four toes, two pointing up and two pointing down. These, along with their incredibly strong prop-like tails, allow them to shimmy up the side of trees looking for bugs and they provide excellent grip when the bird pecks. Pileateds predominantly eat carpenter ants from dead or dying trees.
There is no truth to the old wives tale that woodpeckers kill trees. There has been much debate about how to pronounce Pileated: Pill ee ated or Pie lee ated? Allow me to clear things up for once and for all. I don’t know. Both are perfectly acceptable to the woodpeckers, unlike purple gallinules, who get really uptight when their names are mispronounced.