An ode to big red

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A young pileated woodpecker searches for ants in a downed tree.

So the boy and I were wandering around in the woods the other evening when I heard a distinctive knock-knock-knock on a piece of wood.

There is only one bird big enough to make this knock — the pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the woods. The pileated has a wingspan of 29 inches, according to the Sibley Guide to birds.

When a pileated is whacking a tree with its big, sharp, bill, they’re pretty easy to find, but this one took a little searching because it wasn’t hammering a standing tree, but a downed tree. I suspect it was a juvenile bird, because its feathers, at least the lower half, were brown, not the jet black that normally cover most of its body.

The pileated, of course, is best known for its large red crest, that it raises when excited, or it finds a big bug in a tree. Pileateds love carpenter ants and especially like drilling holes in cedars looking for them. It’s not unusual for an old cedar to have multiple pileated holes in it.

The holes they leave behind are distinctive — rectangular in shape rather than round like most woodpecker holes.

They also like to hammer away at cottonwood trees, looking for insects. I’ve seen them hammer a cottonwood so much, it’s fallen over.

Like I said, this particular bird was whacking away at a small downed tree — it looked to be a hunk of rotten paper-bark birch. The pileated has a barbed tongue, that makes it easier to lick insects out of the wood. The tongue can be up to an inch long.

We watched the bird for a good 10 minutes before it finally flew up into a tree, looked at me, gave a call and then took off. By then it was almost dark.

Pileateds are also town birds, at least in towns that have large trees. They’re common in my South Nucleus neighborhood and the power company has no love lost for them because they love to hammer holes in power poles.

Old pileated nests are reused by a host of other bird species, including owls and even small mammals. I’ve seen hawk owls, another cool bird, nest in old pileated nest holes.

Once they make a nest hole, pileateds typically don’t use them again.

While it’s rare to see more than two pileateds together at once, I have seen the parents out in the woods with fledglings, teaching them how to feed.

I never pass up a chance to photograph pileateds, as long as they’re fairly close to the ground. Often, particularly along the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead, you’ll find them, but they’ll be a 150-feet up in the top of a cottonwood — often too far for even a big telephoto lens.

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