The Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

A first encounter with this large woodpecker species cannot fail to capture your attention, whether it be with the bird itself or with the distinctness of its presence in the forest. It is the Pileated Woodpecker who is responsible for those big rectangular holes along the trunks of dead and decaying trees, which provide home bases for itself as well as a number of other species.

Pileated Woodpeckers, the largest woodpeckers in North America, are considered a keystone species; this means that their ecological role is like a kind of umbrella within which nest the roles of several other species in the ecosystem. The health of keystone species is used to help assess the overall health of their environment, so I suppose the two I recently spotted up the hill behind my house in White Gold is a good indication that our particular urban environments are fairly healthy too.

It was a mated pair. The female was nearly hidden in the top of an old pine, surveying, who I wouldn’t have noticed at all if it weren’t for the male, jacking himself up the tree beneath her in true woodpecker fashion. It is their size as well as the sublimity of their behaviour that makes them so intriguing; their large, slow movements are reminiscent of a heron, looking so much with deliberation. There is an elegance to the way they can clear the bark from an old tree with the sweeping movements of their three-inch bills, but it needs to be seen to be appreciated.

In their appearance is a corresponding elegance. The body is mostly ink-black and smooth, like a crow, with squares of white under the wings displayed in flight and also flashed for defence. There are accents of white on the face, and the brilliant red of the crest on the head charmed the American Indian, who used them to decorate their pipes. The only visible difference between the sexes is a red moustache mark on the male.

They can be elusive when they wish, clever at concealing themselves from people. Occupying territories of 150-200 acres makes them a relatively uncommon sight, but they have been known to frequent suburbia and the racket they are capable of making has considerable authority. Most first encounters consist of loud knocking that couldn’t possibly come from a smaller woodpecker, somewhere in the depths of a sizeable forest (they are often associated with old growth but can breed in younger forests if there are some larger trees present). Its rowdy call, close to that of the Northern Flicker but louder and sharper, is a second aural signal. Another may be a raucous male rattling your eaves troughs, claiming land rights and hoping that his one and only will hear him and come along shortly. They mate for life and are year-round residents, abiding the seasons with us while other birds are vacationing in Costa Rica and other points south.

At the turn of the 20th century these woodpeckers were in serious decline as a result of massive land clearing for human settlement and agricultural use. In the 1920s they began to reappear, perhaps due in part to an increased adaptation to second growth habitats and human presence. Also, the spread of Dutch Elm disease in the mid-1900s helped by providing more nesting sites and insect prey.

The key to the preservation of species is the protection of biodiversity.

Proactive approaches to forest management, such as the retention of declining trees, stumps and snags naturally provide more security to birds like the Pileated Woodpecker, whose own survival thereby provides security to a host of other organisms. As an indicator species, this charming bird has helped us to see some of the intrinsic limits of our environmental manipulation, and remind us that some the fine details of forest ecosystems are yet to be recognized.

Upcoming events:

Pitch in Day April 23 — Support the Naturalists by helping to clean up the Function Junction area. Meet at the Re-Use-It Centre at 9:30 a.m., and at the Fire Hall for a barbecue at noon.

Calling all Aspiring Nature Writers — Do you have an interest in natural history? Want to educate others about your favourite flora and/or fauna? Write your very own Naturespeak article. For more information contact April McCrum at 604-932-0919 or


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