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Thursday, January 22, 2015

In quite a few columns last year I noted the expansion into Niagara County — or growth of existing populations — of animals that were, even just 20 years, considered rare sights on the Niagara Frontier.

As I noted, many of the smaller family farms of the area, which were a dime a dozen up until the 1960s, have either been bought up by larger farms or have reverted to their original state: the forest. It’s that latter scenario which has really changed the landscape in Niagara County and, in turn, the wildlife.

Among those creatures that have gone from rare to uncommon in Eastern Niagara County because of this change is the pileated woodpecker.

From my childhood right through my college years I saw the evidence of pileated woodpeckers just once in the area, a tree showing their tell-tale demolition work. But in the two decades since, I’ve seen them at an increasing rate and would consider them a regular find for any birdwatcher who doesn’t mind hoofing it to and through some of Niagara County’s bigger woodlots.

Pileateds are giants

Everyone is familiar with some of the common backyard woodpeckers like the downy woodpecker and its near-twin, the hairy woodpecker. They have what could be called “typical” size for a woodpecker.

Pileated woodpeckers, on the other hand, are anything but typical. If the other woodpeckers are lumberjacks, then I guess pileateds are the Paul Bunyans of the woodpecker world — giants.

While a downy woodpecker might be six inches long, pileated woodpeckers are 18 inches long – the size of a crow – with a 30 inch wingspan!

Identifying pileateds

The pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker on the 
Pileated woodpeckers are unique and can’t be confused with any other local bird. They are black like a crow, with white stripes on their neck and face and a large red crest. When they fly, which is done slowly and deliberately, you will see white wing linings.

Their voice, like their body, is big. Their calls are kind of like that of the common flicker (the brown and yellow “ground dwelling” woodpecker you might see in your yard in the summer). But, it’s louder. Much louder. The kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk call will echo through the forest and here on the lake plains I’ll hear them well over a half-mile away. That’s farther than you can hear a turkey gobble or a hawk scream.

Another audible giveaway is their Bunyan-like hammering. When wailing away on a tree trunk, pileated woodpeckers are just as loud and paced as a person using an ax to fell a tree. It’s a deep, powerful blow, nothing like the rapid fire, high-pitched pecking you hear from red bellied woodpeckers in the spring when they mark their territories by pecking at hollow limbs.

Where to find them

Pileated woodpeckers need large, dying trees, which is why they are recent additions to the local fauna. As our forests age, they create perfect food sources for the woodpeckers. Look for them in local woodlots that are off the beaten path and away from people, such as back in a farm field. These woodlots should be at least 5 acres in size and have plenty of trees in excess of 40 feet in height.

That’s not to say that they won’t frequent yards on occasion. My lawn has a lot of very large trees and is right next to dairy farm and a county road. Despite that hustle and bustle, I might see a pileated in my yard a few times a year. If they know there’s lots of food, they’ll be there.

But, if you hope to see one, the bigger the woods the better. Remember, everything about pileateds is big.

What do pileateds eat? 

Pileated woodpeckers don’t eat wood – they eat what eats wood. They love ants and beetle larvae and will hammer away at an infected tree for hours and days on end, chipping away the bark and trunk to get at the insects.

You can’t miss their handiwork. They will carve a channel into a trunk that might be three to five feet in length, four to six inches wide and just as deep. Below these rectangular carvings you will see large chips at the base of the tree, some larger than a man’s hand.

Some of these holes are so Buyan-esque that the trees will actually fall over.

You are familiar with pileated woodpeckers...sort of 

You’ve seen the pileated woodpecker, but probably never knew it.

The bird is forever immortalized in pop culture. It served as the inspiration for none other than the most famous woodpecker of all – Woody Woodpecker.

The dark body with white markings. The large red crest. The loud maniacal laugh-like call. The size. A unique character, inspired by a unique bird.

But, if you hope to see a real life Woody, know that pileateds aren’t as gregarious as their cartoon interpretations.

They are very shy and wary. They don’t like people.

So, when out in the woods, be stealthy. Bring binoculars and a telescopic lens for you camera because you won’t get close.

Hopefully you someday get a chance to see one of these giant lumberjacks. You won’t forget the first time that you do.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he wonders: If the pileated woodpecker is Paul Bunyan, who is Babe? Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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