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The Magnificent Log-Cocks

On bleak winter days, when the forest seems empty of life, I am often cheered by the sight and sound of pileated woodpeckers. Looking like miniature pterodactyls, they flash their black-and- white wings over a black-and-white landscape.

Pileateds are also the big mouths of the woodpecker world, their demonic-sounding laughter echoing from ridgetop to ridgetop as they keep in touch with their lifelong partners. In addition, both male and female pileateds are master drummers, and frequently proclaim their dominion over the territory that they hold until they die. And, when one or the other partner does die, the surviving mate holds on to their territory and waits for another mate to appear.

While the pileated pair often remains close throughout the year, they spend the autumn and winter nights in separate roost holes, which are usually old nests. But the male frequently makes sure his mate is safe in her roost before retiring to his, and in the morning, he is the first one up and out to check on his mate, according to a study in Maine by James S. Kellam.

Some studies show that the male pileated has the best roost hole and that he will displace his mate from desirable food sources. That may be why, one winter when we had a large staghorn sumac shrub in our backyard, a female pileated landed on it, sending it swaying because of her weight. She ignored the distant calls of her mate as she poked her dagger-shaped beak into the red fruit and looked furtively up and around and then ducked her head as if she did not want to reveal her location. His calls eventually stopped, and she continued eating for ten minutes before flying to a black walnut tree, calling loudly several times, and finally flying off.

On the other hand, in the winter I often find them eating wild grapes together or foraging on nearby trees and rotten logs in search of ants and beetle larvae. Ants remain their favorite food, especially carpenter ants. George Miksch Sutton, Pennsylvania’s state ornithologist back in the late 1920s, reported finding 469 carpenter ants in the stomach of a male pileated in Northumberland County.

Pileated WoodpeckerIn those days, pileated woodpeckers were “all too rare in Pennsylvania,” Sutton wrote in his Birds of Pennsylvania. “It is given to searching for food in deep, shadowy woods…They are naturally creatures of the wilderness…In looking for the bird, seek the wild, wooded mountains. Listen for the cackling cry…”

Sutton called the pileated woodpecker “the magnificent Log-cock,” but hunters called it “Woodcock” and regarded it as a gamebird. Hunting and the logging of our old growth forests seemed to have doomed the pileated woodpecker “doubtless nearing extinction” Sutton wrote. But unlike its larger cousin–the ivory-billed woodpecker–the pileated adapted to humanity’s presence and was content to use second-growth forests as long as they contained some older trees and plenty of dead snags, even though its optimal habitat is late successional stages of coniferous or deciduous forests.

State and federal legislation also protected pileated woodpeckers from hunting, and now they are more common in Pennsylvania than at any time in the last 150 years, particularly in the southern ridge-and-valley section of the state, according to the annual Breeding Bird Surveys, and have increased a whopping 3.3% per year on BBS routes statewide. During the first Pennsylvania atlasing of breeding birds in 1984-89, atlas volunteers found pileated woodpeckers in every county and physiographic province.

Despite their commonality, these “crow-sized” woodpeckers, the largest or second largest in the United States, depending on whether or not the ivory-bills have survived in the remote swamps of Arkansas, never fail to thrill onlookers. Their large, red crests, even on juveniles, give them a “Woody, the woodpecker” appearance. Males can be distinguished from females by their red foreheads and mustaches and are 10 to 15% heavier.

“Pileated” means “crested,” which comes from their species’ name–pileatus–first bestowed on them by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish taxonomist, back in the late eighteenth century. But their more popular names, in addition to Sutton’s “log-cock,” included “cock-of-the-woods,” “king-of-the-woods,” “stump-breaker,” “laughing woodpecker,” and, in Juniata County, “cluck-cock.”

Found throughout the forested areas of the United States and Canada, pileateds in the north are larger than those in the south, and some in the west are not as flashy as those in the east, having grayer throats and less barring. Still, they are easy to identify wherever they live.

Although they mate for life, several observers have witnessed elaborate courtship dances. One of the best descriptions was by Edmund W. Arthur on April 14, 1933, who, while driving from Slippery Rock to Grove City, stopped south of Barmore Run when he saw a pileated woodpecker fly across the highway. He watched as a pair “danced” on a knoll “wherein with bowing and scraping one bird, stepping sideways, made a circle about the other, who slowly turned, facing the performer. When the dance ceased there was a sudden jerky movement on the part of each, and thereupon they flew away.”

A more contemporary description, by Maryland birder Lola Oberman, included bark-stripping, hopping, bowing, and head ducking, also while facing each other on the ground. Scientist Lawrence Kilham, who studied both northern and southern pileateds, in New Hampshire and Georgia, observed bill-waving and “woicking” at the same time, which he attributed to courtship.

April seems to be courtship and nest-building time here on our mountain. Often the pair duets, the female higher pitched than the male as they call back and forth. Once, on April 26, as I walked up our driveway, I heard the cackling call of a pileated. A pair was perched on the branch of a fallen oak tree. The male then mounted the female for several seconds. Then he laid his head briefly against hers before flying off. She jumped down to the ground to resume digging in the rotting wood.

Once I thought I had found a nest. As I hiked down Dump Trail on April 14, I spotted a pileated male going into one of three fresh new holes in a large, dead tree. He sat silently looking out of the hole. The following day I heard tapping from inside and again a pileated peered out. After that, I saw no more activity around the tree. Apparently, pileateds excavate several nest starts each spring before the male makes a final selection and does twice as much excavating work as the female.

Bayard Henderson Christy, who observed nesting pileateds in northern Fulton County, noted that the male was more attentive than the female during incubation and that it was he who took over night duty, keeping the usual four white eggs warm. How long they incubate is still disputed. Several observers stated 18 days; Kilham noted 15 to 16 days; and still others hypothesize the black woodpecker’s 12 to 14 days, since it is the pileated’s closest relative.

Pileated Woodpecker sketchOnce the naked and helpless pileateds hatch, both parents feed them by regurgitation. It takes between 24 and 28 days for them to leave the nest, but they remain a family until the fall. During that time, their parents still feed them and show them how to find their own food.

One mid-June evening at 8:25 p.m., as my husband Bruce and I sat in the living room, demonic laughter and screeches came through the walls. We looked out the front porch door and spotted two pileated fledglings struggling up the opposite sides of the black walnut tree trunk beside the front porch. Then they both flopped into the lilac bush, desperately throwing out their wings to balance themselves as they pushed their way through the shrub, and losing their balance several times. Finally, one flew up to forage on a Seckel pear tree beside the driveway while the other flew off in the opposite direction.

This occurred the same year I thought I had found a nest. So too did other observations of juveniles in our yard such as one on the evening of July 31 when three pileated woodpeckers landed in our front yard, screaming like banshees and chasing each other. Even though they had not nested in the tree I had seen them in, they had obviously nested nearby.

Once the family breaks up, sometime in late September or early October, the youngsters are off in search of their own territory and wander widely.

Often our yard observations of pileateds involve predator chasing. Twice we’ve watched a sharp-shinned hawk try to catch a pileated. Once, in late August, as we ate dinner on the front porch, a sharpie dove at a pileated. The pileated dove right back, and the sharpie fled.

The other chase was more protracted but, in the end, when the sharpie finally lunged at the pileated, the pileated retaliated, but neither bird actually made contact.

Cooper’s hawks are more formidable adversaries, and one September morning a pileated chased a Cooper’s hawk out of a black walnut tree near the shed and up into the yard. Eventually, that bird also retreated.

Other known predators on adult pileateds are red-tailed hawks, northern goshawks, great horned owls, barred owls, gray foxes and American martens. Martens, weasels, red and gray squirrels and black rat snakes attack eggs and young in the nest, but since one parent or the other is almost always in the nest or guarding nearby, even those creatures with other intentions, for example, wood ducks interested in taking over the nest for their own use, have a difficult time.

Four researchers in Texas watched wood ducks, both males and females, continually approach and try to enter an active pileated nest containing three fully feathered young. However, the male pileated regularly perched on a nearby snag and chased them off 12 times. But twice a female wood duck slipped in and the male pileated went in after her. The researchers heard sounds of scuffling and pecking before he evicted her.

Although pileateds won’t share their nest hole with other cavity-nesters, they will share their nest tree, which usually has several cavities excavated in it. For instance, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, who lived in the wilds of Ontario, wrote in her book To Whom the Wilderness Speaks about a 70-year-old aspen tree that in the last four years of its life hosted six species of cavity nesters including pileateds, hooded mergansers, red-breasted nuthatches, wood ducks, American kestrels, and northern flickers, all of which made use of pileated-drilled holes. But other observers have seen them chase red-bellied woodpeckers, European starlings, great crested flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds from their nest cavity.

During the three interactions I’ve observed between gray squirrels and pileateds, a gray squirrel chased a pileated once from a branch it had landed on and twice while it was foraging on the ground. In one case, I was sitting in the woods when a female pileated swooped in low like a dive bomber, skillfully zooming around trees, and landed about 30 feet behind me to work on a dead log. Hopping awkwardly on the forest floor, she flipped large pieces of bark several feet in the air with what looked like casual elan as bark flew in all directions.

I watched for half an hour before a gray squirrel scampered up and chased the pileated to a nearby tree about a foot from the ground where she spread her wings in typical pileated protest fashion. Undeterred, the squirrel rushed at her, and she flew low to another nearby tree. This time the squirrel moseyed off as if content to have displayed its dominance.

Kilham, on the other hand, watched a pileated chase a gray squirrel from its nest by spreading its wings and raising its crest. And I’ve watched a robin and a northern flicker chase a pileated for what seemed like no good reason.

But then, how much do we know about even the most common birds and their lives? Even though I watch pileateds whenever I can, I have only brief glimpses of their interactions with their families and other wild creatures. Still, late fall and winter, when the leaves are off the trees, provide excellent viewing of these impressive birds.
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Pileated Woodpecker photo by Bev Wigney of Burning Silo – used by permission. You can see a larger version on the original photo page. Browse all of Bev’s nature photos here.

The second image is by the great American wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes: a preliminary sketch, in charcoal, for Forbush, Edward H., Birds of Massachusetts, Vol. 2, plate 51, courtesy of the Cornell University Library’s Louis Agassiz Fuertes database.

UPDATE: There’s a remarkable series of photos of a female pileated removing bark from a tree at Stokes Birding Blog.

21 thoughts on “The Magnificent Log-Cocks

  1. Pingback: Via Negativa » Blog Archive » Festive

  2. Wonderful essay on the Pileated, Marcia! Lots of good information. We see Pileateds frequently when we’re out hiking and canoeing and find their behaviour quite fascinating.

  3. Thanks, Bev. Your photo of a pileated added greatly to my essay. Strangely enough, the day before this was posted, I had a wonderful, reasonably long sighting of a female pileated working over a small tree in our hollow.

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  5. Marcia, I’m so glad I did the last I and the Bird, as otherwise I probably wouldn’t have discovered your weblog.

    You write so beautifully.

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  7. My husband and I watched a pair of pileated woodpeckers this morning for over an hour. They were on a Manitoba maple tree outside our home. They kept hopping up and down, up and down the trunk … but were not pecking at it in any way. We assumed it was some kind of courtship ritual.

    They were disturbed by a grey squirrel, and one flew to a nearby telephone pole, but soon returned to the maple. They continued their up and down display for another ten minutes before flying off to a large willow at the back of our property.

    I watched them for a while, and they then flew to another maple at the side of our house, where they were joined by a third pileated. I could not get a close enough look at the third one to identify it as male or female. I went to get my binoculars and when I returned they had flown away (of course!!)

    In the past we have had brief sightings of single birds … never a pair together. We live in Ontario and have 14 acres of wooded land with a creek running through it, and a lot of old and fallen trees.

  8. Sounds like an interesting sighting. According to THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA piece on pileateds by Evelyn L. Bull and Jerome Jackson, “Complex interactions in early March in Maryland involving bark stripping, hopping, bowing, and head ducking while facing one another on the ground.” Courtship displays and mate guarding include wing spreading, crest raising, and head swinging displays, etc. Stay together for life, so you saw a pair, I imagine, and another one trying to interfere.

  9. Good stuff.

    Just wanted to let you know about my Pileated sighting the other day here in Poughkeepsie NY. Two medium sized birds working on a tree. Watched them for a good 1/2 hour, even managed to drive home, couple blocks away, get my camera and take some pictures. Just a disposable camera I had laying around, hope the pictures come out ok.

    They didn’t seem to mind at all, let me get very close to them. They did go higher up in the tree though.

    First time I saw one was at probably 15+ years ago. Thing must have been a good 18 inches tall. He was literally chopping down a small tree along side the road. The tree couldn’t have been more than 8 inches wide and it looked like he took a hatchet to it.

    Poughkeepsie is 75 miles north of NYC. I’m not even sure many people in Poughkeepsie know they have Pileateds living amongst them. Poughkeepsie is on the banks of the Hudson River, and has the Catskill Mountains very close by, so while it’s a small city, wilderness is a stones throw away.

    I’ve seen them several times over the years, never two at once though like the other day. I always keep my eyes and ears open for them, especialy this time of year.

    Pretty amazing.

  10. What wonderful sightings. Sometimes they do allow you to get close. Other times, they are off as soon as they see you. Wonder if they were a male and female? Having close encounters with any wild bird is always a blessing. Thanks for weighing in.

  11. Saw another one yesterday evening. This one bigger than the other two. Tried to run back home and get the video camera before he took off, but missed out. From now on when my wife and I go walking around the neighborhood, the video camera is going with us :)

  12. I see someone else on here from Dutchess County, NY… we are about 20 minutes from Poughkeepsie between Millbrook and Stanfordville.

    We have a pair of pileated woodpeckers that have nested in a tree right next to our driveway. We live about 1/4 mile back into tall woods with very little open space by the house. Our lot is ~18 acres, surrounded by hundreds of undeveloped acres with old growth and lots of dead snags in the woods so it must be a good area for them.

    Since “discovering” them a couple weeks ago, it has become an obsession to watch them – they are fascinating!

    I spend about 30 minutes each morning watching the nest and taking pictures. Their habits are really neat and consistent. One of the pair will announce their return with a specific call and hangs out on nearby trees, and within a minute or so, the one in the tree leaves, and the other goes in about a minute later. They switch off like this periodically about every 15-30 minutes.

    I have never been into bird photography before, but this has motivated me! I recently bought a mid-range 300mm lens and am borrowing a friend’s high end tripod/remote to see if I can get some higher resolution pictures. It turns out that I have a great line of sight to the nest from an upstairs window and I hope this daily viewing teaches me a lot about how they behave as well as getting some decent photos.

    -Colin

  13. Colin,

    I have hoped for years to be able to observe a pileated nest. Usually they are extremely wary. You are really lucky. Take good behavior notes.

  14. Small world :)

    You are extremely fortunate to have pileated neighbors. Take some good shots and share. :-] can’t wait to see’m.

    Still haven’t developed mine from my disposable camera, very lazy that way….

    Ray

  15. I had, what looked like, four and maybe even five , adult males in the yard today. They all looked full grown. Two seemed to have an encounter in a tree and tumbled towards the ground. I watched for a good while.. is it common for so many males to be together?

  16. Hi Debbie. Marcia is on vacation; this is her son and blog-caretaker. Yes, we sometimes see what we take to be family groups hanging out together like this for a little while after they fledge. At least, that’s how I’d interpret what you’re reporting.

  17. Thanks Dave. Now I am wondering how rapidly they grow, as they all seemed so full grown.

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