An ode to big red

Print Article

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.

Print Article

Read More Columns

First gray hairs and a growing family, in 1969...

December 12, 2018 at 7:27 am | Lake County Leader Another classic G. George Ostrom column. This one George picked out from March 1969... In the past seven years, the Hog Heaven Correspondent has traveled the length and breadth of the nation, added ...

Comments

Read More

A belated thank you

December 12, 2018 at 7:26 am | Lake County Leader You would think, as old as I am (81), that I would be wiser and make fewer mistakes. Not so. Just about the time I get a little smug, I stumble and blunder into a boo-boo. The latest, but not my big...

Comments

Read More

The crabby Christmas tree

December 12, 2018 at 7:25 am | Hungry Horse News Lisa got the spruce budworm last summer. She was a beautiful girl, but I tell ya, once them bugs start gnawing your needles, you’re never quite the same and she wasn’t. Sure, the chickadees and gold...

Comments

Read More

Ostrom, jackpine rodeo and a little Yummy-Slick in 1971

December 05, 2018 at 7:33 am | Lake County Leader Another classic G. George Ostrom column. This one George picked out from 1971... This past week was pretty hectic. I spent a lot of time without corporate attorneys and subsequently brought in my pe...

Comments

Read More

Contact Us

(406) 892-2151
PO BOX 189, 926 Nucleus Avenue
Columbia Falls, MT 59912

©2018 Hungry Horse News Terms of Use Privacy Policy
X
X