Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: The Pileated Woodpecker

There are only a limited number of sounds that can be heard outdoors during the winter in the Adirondacks. While most of these noises tend to carry only short distances, there is one that is loud enough to travel well over a hundred yards. Even when the limbs and boughs are coated with an audio-absorbing layer of snow, the voice of the pileated woodpecker periodically breaks the silence and resounds through our mature woodlands.

Ornithologists are generally of the opinion that the pileated woodpecker uses it piercing, high-pitched “kac-kac-kac” call in winter to maintain contact with its mate during its daily search for food. Unlike most birds, once an adult male and female pileated woodpecker have established a pair bond, they tend to remain together throughout the entire year in the territory that they have claimed. Throughout the day, the birds routinely venture to various areas of the forest in search of clusters of invertebrate matter, especially carpenter ants that have taken refuge within the trees.

In autumn, as cooler weather becomes the rule, carpenter ants begin to restrict their activities to the piece of wood in which they have constructed their nest. By tapping on different sections of trees likely to harbor these ants, a pileated woodpecker is able to determine which of these wooden columns contains these large, black ants and then home in on the site of the colony. By chipping away the wood that shields the colony, the pileated woodpecker is able to expose and then harvest the individuals within the nest. Using its hard bill and strong neck muscles to tear into most of the tunnels and chambers of the colony takes time and effort, but the rewards can be substantial as many nests contain well over a hundred of these now lethargic, wood-dwelling insects.

After getting its fill of ants at such a site, whether high up on the trunk or just above the forest floor, a pileated woodpecker then attempts to establish communication with its mate, that may have wandered some distance away.

During the latter part of the afternoon, the pair of pileated woodpeckers turns toward home, trying to arrive at their nightly roosts with the approach of dusk. Like other woodpeckers, and the nuthatches, the pileated woodpecker prefers to spend the night inside a protective enclosure well above the ground. While some of these handsome birds elect to roost in the cavity that served as their nest during the spring and early summer, most individuals are known to excavate their own sleeping chamber during the early autumn. These chambers tend to be placed in older, partially rotted trees, as they provide slightly more room for this crow-sized bird, and allow for an easier time chiseling away the interior. The roost of an adult tends to be located in a tree near that of its mate, and both birds retire for the evening at similar times.

The harvesting of old, dead and partially rotted trees from a forest is viewed by forest managers as a sound practice. And while removing such trees from any stand of timber definitely makes economic sense, the abundance of such dying and dead trees benefits the pileated woodpecker. An increased number of standing columns of decaying wood scattered about the forest, lends to an increase in the various insects and bugs that utilize such matter for food and shelter. Numerous dead and rotted trees also provide the pileated woodpecker with a greater selection of places in which to excavate a nest and a winter roost.

While younger forests are also known to contain enough dead trees and rotted stubs to support an adequate population of wood-boring bugs, which in turn provide a source of food for the pileated woodpeckers, nesting and roosting sites can be difficult to find. Because of this bird’s size, it requires trees that are not much less than six inches in diameter for adequate housing.

Over the past century, the pileated woodpecker has become fairly common throughout New York State, as this bird is resourceful enough at finding both food and shelter in small and managed woodlots. It is in the Adirondacks, however, where this handsome giant flourishes because mature stands of timber can be found in most places. This is why the characteristic 5 to 6 second burst of “kac-kac-kac-kac’s” may often be heard by those passing through our wooded glades, even during the winter here in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Pileated Woodpecker (Courtesy Wikipedia).

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.




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