| Nov 13, 2008

Outdoors - Pileated Woodpeckers

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - November 13, 2008 Pileated Woodpeckers: Carpenters of the Deep Woods Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight

Photo: Andrew Brownsword Female Pileated Woodpecker on a downed log

Now that the summer is over and so many of the summer birds have departed for warmer climates, the birds that stay here all year round are easier to notice. The chickadees, nuthatches, jays and woodpeckers have been here all along, but had faded into the background during the summer to make their nests and raise their families. With the arrival of the cooler weather of fall, they seem much more plentiful. In part, this is true – with most pairs raising 4-6 youngsters during the summer, there are more of these resident birds around now than in the early spring.

One of the more conspicuous of our resident birds is the Pileated Woodpecker. There is no mistaking this crow-sized woodpecker with its large black body, red crest, and long chisel-like bill, or its penetrating “kuk-kuk-kuk” call.

The recent history of the Pileated Woodpecker is a good news story. Not that long ago, the Pileated Woodpecker was much less common than it is today. By 1900, habitat loss and market hunting had all but eliminated this bird from southern and central Ontario. However, by the 1940s forest regrowth in many parts of the province and protection from hunting had begun to allow populations to recover. This trend continues today, and its numbers continue to increase in many parts of Ontario.

The Pileated Woodpecker is a permanent resident of deciduous or coniferous forests in southern Canada and in the western, midwestern, and eastern United States. A pair will defend its territory year-round, and a pair member will not abandon a territory even if its mate is lost. In Ontario, its numbers are highest in areas where there is sufficient habitat, particularly continuously forested areas with large diameter dead and declining trees and lots of large woody debris on the forest floor. These are some of the defining characteristics of “old-growth” forest, and while there is relatively little true old-growth forest left in southern and central Ontario, the maturing second growth forest found in many parts of our area provides good habitat for large numbers of these birds.

Because of its size and strong chisel-shaped bill, this woodpecker is a serious digger, and it uses this ability to construct nest and roost cavities and to find food. Its diet consists primarily of wood-dwelling ants and beetles that it finds in woody material on the forest floor and from standing live and dead trees. Look for large, oval-to-rectangular shaped cavities that it excavates in search of ants.

The Pileated Woodpecker is considered a “keystone species” in this area. What this means is that the existence of healthy populations of this woodpecker has a very important impact on other species that live in the same area. The cavities excavated by the Pileated Woodpecker provide nesting places and shelter for a diverse array of other creatures, including other birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

One way that people can help support populations of this bird is to resist the urge to cut down large dead and dying trees (as long as it is safe to leave them standing), and to avoid “cleaning up” wooded property. Leaving large dead trees, branches and logs on the forest floor to deteriorate slowly over time provides the material necessary for the wood dwelling insects that make up the bulk of the Pileated Woodpeckers’ food. And who knows, you may even get to see one of these big woodpeckers up close and personal!

Observations – on November 1, I saw a Snowshoe Hare on our bush property east of Sharbot Lake, and the annual transition to its white winter outfit was well underway. To my eye, it looked about 50% transformed. I also saw a good numbers of Black-capped Chickadees, Brown Creepers and Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches foraging together in small mixed flocks.

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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