The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the most easily identifiable birds in the forest. Roughly the size of a crow, its black and white face stripes topped with a bright red crown make this bird easy to spot from quite a ways away, although you probably heard its drumming or speedy laugh-like call long before spotting it!
They can be found in mature woodlands of nearly every type - hemlocks in the Northwest, beech and maple forests in New England, even cypress swamps in the Southeast. Occasionally they can be found in suburban areas with large trees and patches of woodland.
Their main source of food is carpenter ants, but they will also eat wood boring beetle larvae, termites, caterpillars, cockroaches, grasshoppers, even fruits and nuts. They make large rectangular holes that can be a foot or more long that go deep inside the wood often pursuing the tunnels of carpenter ants. They will also use their long, barbed tongues to extract beetle larvae and termites. In order to make such large holes these birds will use their long necks to pull far away from the tree them make powerful strikes with their bills pulling in with their feet to increase the strength of the blow.
By studying how these birds use their bills to break into trees without getting concussions has led (and is leading) into research into how best to protect humans who are prone to concussions (think football players, seizure sufferers, etc) against these types of injuries. Interesting fact - there is a specific bone that exists in both birds & humans, the hyoid bone, located near the middle of the neck. In the woodpecker this bone wraps all the ways around the actual skull acting like a seatbelt for the brain, minimizing the impact. Granted there are many other factors (birds don't have floating brains like we do) that equip birds (and sheep, deer, etc) to be able to handle blunt force trauma to the head, by studying these animals, we'll be able to create technologies to protect against concussions.
The vocal range of this bird is spectacular, if you remember the Woody Woodpecker show, this character is based off the Pileated all the way down to the 'laugh'. Check out the variety of sounds HERE.
In folklore, this is a very important animal totem.
This bird is connected to the heartbeat of the Earth itself. The drumming often indicating forthcoming changes. The red found in the head area reflecting a stimulation of mental activities and the head's chakra centers. Stimulating and awakening new mental faculties. Sometimes it will arrive to drum up new rhythms in your life, or to create the awareness that you need to do so.
Their undulating flight pattern reminds us to take our own flight, find our own rhythm, don't be afraid to be yourself.
Since 2015 we have been exploring and sharing all the amazing things we’ve found in nature.
Emily is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist who is most often found out in the woods.