Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) are big dramatic birds, the inspiration for the "Woody the Woodpecker" cartoon shows. We enjoy watching the crow-sized birds with white under-wings and red-crested heads fly through our valley on strong wing-beats, calling a ringing "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk."
Adult pileated woodpeckers are 15 to 18 inches long. It is the third-largest woodpecker species in North America. Ivory-billed woodpeckers of the southern United States and Cuba, and the Imperial woodpecker of western Mexico are larger, but those species may be extinct.
Pileated woodpeckers are elegantly attired with mostly black feathers punctuated by a white throat and a prominent red crest on their heads. Males have a red forehead. Females have a gray forehead. Their white under-wings are visible in flight.
They range across Canada from British Columbia east to Nova Scotia. In the United States, they occur in the west from Washington into California and east into Idaho and North Dakota. They occur throughout most of the eastern United States, preferring extensive tracts of woods with large trees.
Pileated woodpeckers are engineers of the bird world. They vigorously pry off bark and use their large chisel-shaped bill to excavate rectangular holes in dead trees in search of carpenter ants, their favorite food. They also eat other tree-dwelling insects, berries and fruit. The big holes they excavate in dead trees for feeding, night-time roosts and for nesting are used by many other species of birds and mammals.
Pileated woodpeckers are adapted to extracting insects from deep within tree trunks. In addition to their ability to hammer their way into dead trees, they have a remarkable tongue. The tongue originates at the top of the upper bill, passes through the right nostril, between the eyes, divides in two, the two parts pass over the top of the skull, around the eyes on either side of the neck, coming forward through the lower bill where it joins into a single tongue, tipped with barbs and sticky saliva. Pileated woodpeckers can extend their tongue about four inches beyond the end of their bill.
Male pileated woodpeckers "drum" on hollow trees to claim territory. Pairs of adults protect a nesting territory of about one to four square miles. The year-round residents seem to tolerate other pileated woodpeckers in their territory during winter.
The female lays usually four eggs in the spring and the male helps incubate them. The chicks fledge in about a month, but the parents feed them and teach them how to find food until September.
Why don't they get headaches from all that head-banging? The late Philip May, a professor at UCLA, calculated that pileated woodpeckers bang their beaks on tree trunks 20 times a second up to 12,000 times a day, with 1,200 times the force of gravity on each impact. That's like hitting your face into a wall at 16 miles per hour.
May described their anatomical adaptations to head-banging. They have a thick skull with a spongy cushion of cartilage between the skull and the bill. They have strong muscles connecting their lower jaw to the skull that contract milliseconds before impact, further cushioning the skull. High-speed photography has shown that they close a membrane over their eyes milliseconds before impact. That may keep their eyes from popping out of their head, but this still doesn't explain to me why they don't get headaches.
May and his colleague, Ivan Schwab of UC-Davis, were awarded an Ig Noble Prize last year for their articles about why pileated woodpeckers don't get headaches that appeared in the British medical journals Lancet and Ophthalmology.
Scientists can have fun too. The Ig Noble prizes are awarded at Harvard University at about the time each year the real Nobel Prizes are awarded. Schwab graciously received his Ig Noble award dressed like a pileated woodpecker. The Ig Nobles are for scientific research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.
During winter, pileated woodpeckers sometimes show up at bird feeders to eat suet. Our friends, Ty and Sue Covill, live outside of River Falls on the south side of a forested hill. Pileated woodpeckers are regular customers at their bird feeder and they have had two of the big birds on their feeder at once. Sue had to sneak up toward the window to take photos because the woodpeckers are quite wary.
Although they don't yell "ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha" like the "Woody the Woodpecker" in cartoon shows, pileated woodpeckers are a delight to see and are important members of our forest ecosystems.
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