I was driving through town last week and a large black bird flew across the road in front of me and landed on a utility pole. I knew right away it was a Pileated Woodpecker.
At 42 cm in length, this is by far our largest woodpecker. This bird is primarily black in colour, but it has large white wing patches, some white stripes on the face and neck, and a prominent red crest. Because of this conspicuous red crest, the bird is often mistakenly called a ‘red-headed woodpecker.’
There is a species in North America called Red-headed Woodpecker, but our Pileated is not it. The true Red-headed Woodpecker is found only in eastern North America. The name pileated, comes from the Latin for ‘capped’, referring to the red crest.
Pileated Woodpeckers do not migrate, they remain here year-round. Like all woodpeckers, they require some trees in their territory but they are quite adaptable to a variety of habitats.
They can be found in large tracts of continuous forest, but they also occur in open woodlands, parks, and even urban areas where there are enough trees for feeding and nesting.
Due to the large size of this bird, a large tree is required for nesting.
They are primarily insect eaters, but will also eat fruit and nuts when available. Rotten stumps and logs that harbour large numbers of ants, ant larvae or termites are favourite feeding sites. When chiselling into such stumps, they often leave roughly rectangular shaped holes, a sure sign that a Pileated has been feeding. Nest holes are round.
There are several other species of woodpecker in our region.
The ones most often seen around Nakusp are Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Red-naped Sapsucker.
The first two are very similar in appearance and can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. Both are essentially black and white with the males having a small red patch on the back of the head.
Downy Woodpeckers, at about 17 cm in length, are a bit smaller than Hairy Woodpeckers, but the difference is slight and it is not always useful for identification.
The Northern Flicker is probably our most common woodpecker. Flickers are distinguished by the reddish-orange colour on the underside of the wing, plainly visible in flight.
This is also the species that likes to drum on metal objects in the spring. Street lights, chimney covers and even metal roofs are often used. This drumming takes the place of singing and serves to declare “ownership” of the local territory.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are also fairly common, but tend to be less obvious than flickers. This is the only one of our woodpeckers that migrates; they arrive in early April and are gone by the end of September.
As the name suggests they feed on tree sap. They drill rows of small holes in the bark and return later when the sap has begun to run. They then eat the sap, as well as the insects that are attracted to it.