Pileated Woodpecker Wednesday!

Today is our last Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I can’t believe winter is officially only one week away! A weekly dedication to woodpeckers was really enjoyable for me to write, but I’m also looking forward to the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Speaking of waterfowl, on Sunday Dave and I added 4 species of waterfowl to our life list at Long Beach Island. I can’t wait to tell you all about it (post will be coming soon about that).

On November 14, 2015 I achieved one of my birding dreams: to see a Pileated Woodpecker. (It was one of my best birding moments so far, and you can read about it here at Pileated Dreams). My fascination with Pileated Woodpeckers started long before I ever saw one, and has only increased over time as I eagerly await the moment I find another one. Here are some interesting facts about this awe-inspiring bird.

  • The Pileated Woodpecker is the 6th largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest in North America. It’s about the size of a crow, but despite being so big it’s more often heard than seen.
Pileated in Flight (Image by NatureMan via birdsandblooms)
  • Like the Northern Flicker, Pileateds primarily eat ants. Their diet also consists of a variety of insects, nuts, and fruit. They occasionally eat at suet feeders. (Quick side note: if you watch Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Feeder Cam, you can sometimes see a Pileated show up at their suet feeder. It’s quite a sight!)
  • They are known for making large, rectangular cavities in dead trees. Pileateds depend on a variety of habitats, but mostly mature deciduous or coniferous forests. Cavities can be deep and up to a foot long. They use the tunnels within the cavity of catch beetle larvae with their long tongues. To hammer, Pileateds pull their necks back far from the tree and pull on the trunk with their feet to make a heavy blow.
Pileated cavity at Rancocas Nature Center, NJ (Image by BirdNation)
  • Pileateds are pretty distinctive, so they are not usually confused with other species. Sometimes they are confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are larger than Pileateds, and although also jet black, have large white wing patches on the outer wing. Pileateds have large white patches under their wings. The both have bright red crests, but the Pileated has malar stripes. It’s unknown if the Ivory-billed is extinct at the moment, so it’s more than likely that you’re seeing a Pileated.
  • How can you tell the difference between a male and female? The male’s red crest extends down to his upper mandible, while the female’s forehead is a dusky grayish-brown. The male’s malar stripes are red and the female’s stripes are black.
  • They hold large territories; spanning as far as one mile or more for a single pair. Pairs are usually monogamous and mate for life. They defend their territory throughout the year. Defense strategies include raising their crest, drumming, calling, and displaying the white patch under their wings.
A mated pair (male left, female right) Image by By AndrewBrownsword – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4348147

I hope you enjoyed Woodpecker Wednesday! What’s your favorite North American woodpecker? Tell me about it in the comments! The Pileated is mine (obviously! :-P)


Red-headed Woodpecker Wednesday

We only have 3 more weeks of our autumn feature, Woodpecker Wednesday. On December 21 (the Winter Solstice), Waterfowl Wednesday will return! Today’s featured woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)


The plumage of the Red-headed Woodpecker is bold and striking. Their bellies are white, and their wings are half-black, half-white. Their round heads are bright red. There are only four sexually monochromatic woodpeckers in the world and the Red-headed Woodpecker is one of them. This means it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between a male and female visually in the field.  Immature Red-heads actually lack the red head. Their heads are gray-brown, and the white patch on their wings have rows of black spots.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Image by Classic Collection of North American Birds via birds-ofn-north-america.net)


Year-round from Rocky Mountain States east to the Atlantic Coast and south to Texas and Florida. Summer (breeding): from Eastern Montana to New York. Some populations winter in mid-Texas.


Deciduous woodlands, open forests, groves, orchards, farm country


Considered the most omnivorous North American woodpecker. Eats nuts, insects, seeds, fruit. Sometimes they raid nests and eat eggs/nestlings. May occasionally eat mice and other adult birds. Like the Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-heads are proficient at flycatching.

Like some other woodpeckers, Red-heads store nuts and seeds in crevices of trees. However, they are the only North American woodpecker that is known to use bark and wood as a protective covering to hide their caches.

Foraging for acorns (Image by Jim Williams via Minnesota Star Tribune)


They are monogamous, usually for several years. Males will do most of the excavating on a dead tree, and if the female approves the site she will tap with him. Red-heads may have 1-2 broods per year, with usually 4-5 eggs per clutch. Both parents will incubate the eggs for 12-13 days and the young will fledge about 27-31 days after hatching. The pair may start a second brood in the same nest, but usually a separate nest while still feeding the first brood.


rheer, rheer squeal; racka racka chatter used for communcation between mates, a short descending rattle as a defense call. Groups call while flycatching.


Populations have fluctuated dramatically over the past 200 years, and have declined in the Northeast in recent years. Population loss is likely through to lack of old-growth forests and acorn crop fluctuations. The are considered Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Fun Facts:

  • Red-heads are very pugnacious, and will be aggressive towards a variety of other birds, even the large Pileated Woodpecker 
  • Their closets relatives are the Acorn and Lewis’s Woodpecker. They are all members of the genus Melanerpes. 
  • They will store live grasshopper into tree crevices that are so tight the grasshopper can’t escape.
  • Sometimes Red-heads may drop nuts or pine cones on roads to be crushed by cars. Unfortunately, this leads to a relatively high rate of roadkill mortality.
  • Due to the striking contrast of their plumage, they are sometimes known as “the flying checkerboard”.

World of Woodpeckers

Happy Woodpecker Wednesday! I thought I’d do something a little different for our feature this week. Instead of a species profile, today’s post is going to be facts about woodpeckers in general. I think as a bird blog, it’s important to do species profiles to educate others on specific birds (big groups like Audubon and Cornell Lab do “bird of the week” features too).

But every once in awhile, you just want to mix things up. And I’m in that kind of mood today. So here are 10 wonderful facts about woodpeckers.

  • There are between 180-200 woodpecker species found throughout the world. Some species are possibly extinct, but since these extinctions haven’t been confirmed, it’s hard for scientists to get a more exact count.
  • Woodpeckers can be found on almost every continent, except Australia and the extreme polar regions. They are also not present in Madagascar, New Zealand, and New Guinea. Most species live in woodland areas, but a few live in deserts and rocky hillsides.
  • Woodpeckers are part of the family Picidae, which is one of the eight families in the order Piciformes. There are four subspeices of the family Picaidae which include sapsuckers, wrynecks, and piculets.
  • The smallest woodpecker in the world is the Bar-breasted Piculet. Adults are around 3 inches (7.5 cm) and weight about 0.28 to 0.35 ounces (8 to 10 grams). They are found in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia.
Bar-breasted Piculet (Image by Joao Quental via peruaves.org)
  • The largest woodpeckers in the world are the Ivory-billed (around 20 inches) and Imperial (between 23-25 inches). However, both may be extinct. The largest confirmed woodpecker is the Great Slaty Woodpecker, which is around 20 inches and live in Southeast Asia.
Imperial Woodpecker specimens (Image by Fritz Geller-Grimm via wikimedia commons)
  • Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet. This means that they have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing the rear. Many birds, such as waders and passerines, have 3 forward and one facing backwards. Being zygodactl helps woodpeckers climb trees vertically and gives them exception grip since their talons are so long.
Woodpecker Feet illustration (via Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta,GA)
  • How can woodpeckers drum on trees without hurting their heads? Their skulls are thick and have sponge-like bone in the front and rear of the cranium. This helps them protect the brain by spreading the impact force. The nictitating membrances (a.k.a “thrid eyelid”)close a millisecond before impact to protect their eyes. They also have special bristled feathers that cover their nostrils from flying debris.
  • A woodpecker can peck at an average of around 20 pecks per second. That’s around 8000-12,000 pecks per day!
  • Woodpeckers have long tongues, which vary in shape depending on a species diet. Woodpeckers have a  hyoid apparatus (a set of two narrow bones, muscle, and cartilage). The hyoid allows the tongue to extend to great lengths. It wraps around the base and over the top of the skull.
Diagram of a woodpecker tongue (Illustration by Denise Takahashi via birdwatchingdaily.com)
  • The most common flight pattern for woodpeckers is 3 flaps and a glide.


What is your favorite species of woodpecker? Tell me in the comments below.