Contributed by Bayard Henderson Christy
[Published in 1939: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 171-189]
*** Catesby (1731) depicted the bird (in its southern form) and called it "the large red-crested woodpecker"; and Linnaeus (1758), citing Catesby as his source, named it, for his purposes pileatus (= crested). Following Linnaeus, the English naturalist Latham (1783) began in 1781 to publish his General Synopsis; and he, lacking knowledge of the bird in its haunts, and finding Catesby's circumlocution unwieldy, took from Linnaeus's Latin, as a name for common usage, "pileated woodpecker." The indications are that Latham coined the name; certainly he gave it currency.
The bird already possessed a common name; and it is a pity that Latham did not know it. In its native land it was, and still is, commonly called, the log-cock. That is a good name--apt, picturesque, and widely used. Wilson (1811) knew it well enough, and so did Audubon (1842); and they would have done well, had they given it place as the established vernacular name. But Wilson, under Bartram's tutelage, followed Latham, and Audubon followed Wilson. They, in their prestige, have settled the matter. Nuttall (1832) tried to make a stand for log-cock, and others since have tried, but in vain. And now upon this splendid creature a dull piece of pedantry remains hopelessly fixed.
Another homespun name in extensive use is Cock-of-the-woods; yet another is Wood-cock. This last is suitable enough, but it leads obviously to confusion. Accordingly, within the range of the true woodcock (Philohela minor), the woodpecker is commonly distinguished as the "black woodcock." Other appellatives that have been picked up here and there and gathered in the books are "black woodpecker," "English woodpecker," "black log," "king-of-the-woods," "stump breaker"; and because of its cackling cry, "wood-hen," "Indian-hen," "laughing woodpecker," "johnny-cock," "wood-chuck," and "cluck-cock." (This last, given by Scoville, 1920, as current in Juniata County, Pa., is perhaps, an assimilation from the Pennsylvania Dutch.) ***
Migration.--Generally speaking, the species is resident wherever found. Some of the earlier naturalists supposed that it retired in winter from the more northerly portions of its range; but none affords any evidence. George Miksch Sutton (1930), when ornithologist for the Game Commission of Pennsylvania, having reviewed the reports of the wardens, said that they tended to indicate a gradual movement of the birds in winter around the eastern end of Lake Erie and southward into Pennsylvania. Such may be the case. On the other hand, it is true that, after the nesting season has passed, and throughout the fall and winter, the birds wander and appear in areas where at other seasons they are unknown; and it may be that Dr. Sutton's wardens were basing their reports upon such seasonal reappearances. More precise observations must be made before it can be asserted with confidence that there is migration in any sense other than that here recognized.
Courtship.--It is usual to find the birds associated in pairs, even after the nesting season has passed; and from this the inference has been drawn (Morrell, 1901; Knight, 1908) that they continue, year after year, constantly mated. Lewis O. Shelley, writing from East Westmoreland, N.H., says: "It is my belief that the pileated mates for life, for, seen almost daily, one pair is known to have shown no active spring display for the past few years, nor was a third bird (male) seen near." This inference may be sound; nevertheless, an element of conjecture here should not be overlooked, and further data should be sought.
In some cases, certainly, the birds engage in mating antics, and Edmund W. Arthur (1934) relates an example:
On April 14, 1933, while driving with a companion. . .from Slippery Rock [Pennsylvania]. . .to Grove City, I observed a Pileated Woodpecker. . .flying across the highway a short distance south of Barmore Run. Stopping our car, we got out and followed the bird with our eyes, until it alighted on a tall tree a thousand feet away in the swampy woodland. Presently another, and then a third, were seen. They were quite restless, though apparently fearless, as evidenced by their flying about, alighting in plain view of us upon trees not fifty yards distant. After several minutes one of them--a female we thought--alighted upon a grassy knoll in a pasture to the left of the road, where it walked about for a brief interval, until a second came to the knoll and approached within three or four feet of the first. Then began a curious movement, much resembling the dance of Flickers, wherein with bowing and scraping one bird, stepping sideways, made a circle about the other, who slowly turned, facing the performer. When the dance ceased there was a sudden jerky movement on the part of each, and thereupon they flew away. There are two houses at the intersection, and the people living in one of them told us that a pair of these birds had nested the year before in a maple just in the rear of their house.
Francis H. Allen has written a description of a formal dance at a season remote from mating time; and, since the description has not been published, and since it is pertinent to the question of permanence of mating, it is here given at length:
"On the side of Mount Monadnock, N. H., October 13, 1908, I watched two birds executing a sort of dance. When first seen they were clinging to the bole of a spruce, near the ground. They hopped up and down the trunk, frequently pecking at each other's bills simultaneously, now on one side of the tree, now on the other. When I got too near they flew a short distance to another tree, and I followed them about from tree to tree for about half an hour, often within 50 or 60 feet of them. They always lit at the base of the tree and worked up a few feet, seldom going more than 5 feet up, I think. They hopped backward and downward a great deal, and often they lifted and partly spread their wings. Their motions were limber and undulating, marked by a certain awkward grace, without the stiffness of the smaller woodpeckers. The crests were elevated occasionally. I noticed no difference in the markings, but I was then unacquainted with the sexual differences of the species, and I cannot say whether or not they were male and female. They occasionally uttered a faint wahk, wahk, wahk, in a soft, conversational tone; but it was for the most part a silent performance."
The bird drums a roll, as do other woodpeckers. The only other drumming of comparable intensity is that of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, but commonly the pileated woodpecker's performance is so heavy as to be unmistakable. Often the drumming consists not of a roll but of slow heavy beats. Dr. Sutton (1930) writes: "On May 19, 1925. . .I heard a male drumming for over an hour. . . . During the whole period there was a noticeable similarity of the performances. . . . At least fifty or sixty times there was an introductory, rapidly given roll; then a pause, followed by three distinct blows. . .giving much the impression of a queer rhythm beat upon an aboriginal drum." With this the description of the drumming of the sapsucker given by Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1896b) may be compared.
Ernest Waters Vickers (1915) gives the following description of "the masterly roll of the great log-cock":
This roll is composed of twelve strokes or blows, forming an ascending and descending climax; increasing in rapidity and volume to the middle and dying in force and rapidity just as it began. While the bird may not give the complete roll, may break off anywhere, it is always, so far as I have heard, a part of the above. . . . A mellow yet powerful cellular jar to which the whole wooded heart of the forest makes echoing response--a solemn and ancient sound. . . .
Thus. . .I heard one drumming far away on a sounding board of peculiar musical resonance and power to carry. . .I had often heard this roll a full mile and a half away; once or twice I had even heard it in the house with doors and windows closed! . . .This old sounding-board was the hollow limb or arm of a big tulip tree or "white wood" flung out at right angle from the trunk 60 or 70 feet from the ground, a mere shell as appeared. . .sound and hard and barkless. The spot where he hammered was white where the weathered gray fibers had been beaten off by constant use. . . .
That April day. . .he sat upright upon the limb grasping it firmly. . .poising himself, making a motion or two as a neat penman about to begin writing starts with a preliminary flourish, struck the limb somewhat lightly at first and deliberately, accelerating both speed and power, diminishing to stop as he started. He then paused to listen to the effect, attend to the echoes, or wait for the response of his mate perhaps, which occasionally rolled back from somewhere away east in the woods. He would hop about a trifle, cock his head examining his neighborhood a little, dress his feathers or search for parasites--but not for long did he forget what he was there for; then gather himself up for another reverberation. With such energy did he hammer that his whole body shook and his wings quivered. He fairly hurled himself wildly at it. The great loose hair-like scarlet crest flowed in the sun and his scarlet moustache added to his noble and savage appearance.
Nesting.--The birds are very tenacious of their nesting places, returning year after year to the same location and even to the same tree trunk. It is usual to find several nesting holes (and, perhaps, winter quarters too) within an area, say, 100 yards square. In such preference, held to even when the forest has been partially cut down, the reason probably lies why nests sometimes are found in open places. Commonly, however, the nesting stub stands in heavy forest and within the shadow of the leafy canopy. There are a few records of nests on mountain sides and ridges, but, typically, the nesting tree stands in valley or bottomland and near the margin of lake or stream or in a swamp. The boles of trees riddled and furrowed in the pursuit of food are in no case used for nesting. An ant-infested trunk may be supposed to be definitely not suitable for such use.
Data are at hand upon 33 nests, from points widely scattered throughout the range. Of these, one cavity was sunk in a large dead hemlock, one in a dead pitch pine, one in a telegraph pole (an oddity--Roberts, 1932), and 30 in the boles of deciduous trees. Three are reported as dug in living trees; four are more particularly reported as in the dead tops of living trees; the remaining 20-odd were, certainly most of them, and (for all that appears) all of them, in dead stubs. Of the 30, eight were in beech trees; six in poplar, and a seventh in tulip poplar. Three were in birches, three in oaks, three in hickories. Two were in sugar maples and one in a red maple. One was in an ash, one in an elm, and one in a basswood. One was as low as 15 feet from the ground; three as high as 70 feet. The average height was about 45 feet.
The trunk at the point where the hole is drilled will ordinarily be from 15 to 20 inches in diameter. The hole commonly, though not invariably, faces the east or the south. Such is the preferred position, but, as may be supposed, the slope of the surface of the tree trunk and the quality of the wood are factors in the choice; and holes sometimes are found drilled through bark; more frequently it is through the bleached and bonelike surface of a stub from which the bark has long been stripped away. Though sometimes quite circular, the hole tends to be of triangular outline, peaked above and leveled below. The lower margin of the hole is outwardly and downwardly beveled and very nicely finished. The orifice varies from 3 1/4 to 4 1/2 inches in vertical extent. The only other notable item in external appearance is that, if the tree be bare of bark and smooth surfaced (as is usual), an area of surface a few inches below the hole will be seen to have become polished by the rubbing of the tail feathers of the parent birds. And this spot, perhaps in consequence of difference in the absorption of moisture and fungus growth, may persist and be still plainly discernible in later years.
A nesting tree that may be regarded as typical stood in a dense forest, entirely of hardwood --maples, elms, and yellow birches--on the plain of a high and ancient beach of Lake Superior, cut through by a mountain stream, and about a hundred yards from the water. It was the smooth and barkless stub of a dead elm, about 45 feet high and having a girth, breast-high, of 76 inches. The bole was smooth and white, and the wood was still firm. The stub stood well shaded beneath the living trees. A few flecks of morning sunlight fell upon its eastern face; but throughout the greater part of the day it remained in shadow. It had been the woodpeckers' nesting place certainly for four years. The highest hole seemed to be the oldest--in the south face and near the top. The uppermost 6 feet of the stub had since become weathered and checked and manifestly unsuitable. Next, on the north face, there was an old and black-looking hole about 36 feet up. The third and lowest hole was in the east face and about 25 feet up; and, lastly, there was the hole of the year, 34 feet up and also in the east face.
The chamber within is capacious and is ordinarily of conical form, tapering slightly from a low domed roof downward to a bowlike bottom. There may be a slight bulging of the walls below a narrowed median portion. The depth may vary from 10 to 24 inches (extreme figures of 6 and 26 have been recorded). The average of 15 measurements is 19 inches. The entrance hole leads to the upper widest portion, and there the chamber is 7 or 8 inches across. The distance from the outer surface of the bole of the tree to the remote wall of the chamber is about 11 inches. The entrance passageway about 2 inches inward is ridged across, and from this median ridge the floor of the passageway slopes downward, both inwardly and outwardly, and this outward slope forms the bevel already mentioned. The bowl at the bottom is 6 or 6 1/2 inches across. In a specimen before me as I write, the wall chamber below the entrance hole is 4 inches thick. The ridge across the floor of the entrance passageway is rounded. Its crest is 2 1/4 inches inward from the outer surface of the tree trunk, and the vertical depth of the outward bevel is 2 inches. All the surfaces of the cavity are neatly and uniformly chiseled. Along the sides of the entrance passageway extend in parallel curves the tool marks of the bird's beak. No nesting materials are brought in. A feather or two will be the only trace of occupancy remaining after the young are flown. In some though not in all cases it is possible for a man to thrust in his arm and reach the bottom of the chamber.
As a general rule, certainly, a new cavity is drilled for every brood. Such exceptions as have been recorded have explanation in human interference. Samuel Scoville, Jr. (1920), quotes Richard C. Harlow to the effect that but once in his experience had a second use of a nesting cavity occurred. Afterward Mr. Harlow said to me in conversation that even in that instance the cavity had been deepened before it was used for a second time. The only other instance that has come to my attention is one recorded by Morrell (1901) in which a single cavity was used three times--in 1895, in 1897, and in 1898. In preparation for the third nesting the cavity had been deepened by three inches. This nesting was in "a small patch of good sized trees. . .separated [from] the main growth by cutting," and it may be supposed that the woodpeckers had been unduly limited in the choice of nesting sites. In both cases the birds were subject to the disturbance of persistent egg collecting. It stands to reason that, in avoidance of parasites, the practice should have evolved of drilling a fresh cavity for each brood.
Mr. Harlow (1914) found that in one instance the drilling of the nesting cavity was in progress in March and was continued "all during March and April." The female worked alone, and the male continued near by. This nest, an unusually early one, contained, on April 30, three eggs. In the Northern States the eggs commonly are laid early in May. Incubation continues, according to Burns (1915), for 18 days. The young leave the nest about the middle of June.
The range of date in nesting is illustrated by two records that come from Centre County, Pa. (Scoville, 1920; Burleigh, 1931). One is of a set of eggs that hatched on May 11. These eggs must have been laid before April 23. The other record is of a set collected May 11 and found to be practically fresh. The interval at which these two cases stand apart is about 25 days. Scoville (1920) quotes Harlow, a collector whose experience was chiefly in Centre County, to the effect that "May 10 is the standard date for a full clutch of eggs."
Records of nests are at hand from Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The total body of data, however, is small; and it is not possible to discover what the difference may be in mean nesting date from south to north within the region covered. There is a record from Maine, for instance (Morrell, 1901), of a set of eggs found to be heavily incubated as early as May 13.
Eggs.--The eggs are white, with a gleaming smoothness and translucence of shell. They rest at the bottom of the cavity, on the bare bed of finely splintered wood. Three eggs often complete the set, but more commonly four. Of 17 recorded sets, 4 are sets of three, and 13 are sets of four. Some of the earlier writers (Wilson, for instance, 1811) said the number of eggs might be five or even six; but no specific record of so large a number has been found. The eggs are of ovate outline.
The measurements of 51 eggs average 33.16 by 25.21 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 38.2 by 27.1, 30.2 by 25.2, and 33.05 by 23.75 millimeters.
There are cases on record in which a pair of these birds, robbed of their eggs, have laid again (and in the same cavity); with this qualification, there is but a single brood in a season.
Young.--In a particular instance, which I take to be typical, of a nesting (in northern Fulton County, Pa.) I found the male to be no less attentive than the female to the duties of incubation and nurture. In one respect, indeed, the male seemed to be the more attentive, for on both of the two occasions when I had opportunity to observe--once shortly before, the other shortly after the hatching of the eggs--it was the male bird who at sunset retired within the hole and who at sunrise the following morning appeared from within. And I mention this the more confidently since I find chance confirmation in the narrative of another observer, Morrell (1901), and since like observations have been made upon other species of woodpeckers--upon the flicker, for instance, and upon the ivory-billed woodpecker (Allen, 1937).
When incubation was in progress I found the parent birds to be relieving one another at intervals of about two hours; and a week later, when the young were still small, they were coming in with food and replacing one another at intervals of approximately one hour. It may have been accidental, and yet it seemed to me noteworthy, that the routine of hourly visits was broken when the female returned after an absence of 10 minutes to afford the male freedom for 40 minutes before he returned to retire within the cavity for the night.
At the time when hatching was near, and afterward when the young were newly hatched, one or the other of the parent birds was constantly present in the nesting chamber and, the weather being warm, was much of the time perched immediately within the hole. And I then realized the value of the larger dimensions of the upper portion of the chamber. The waiting bird was constantly moving about, thrusting its head out and withdrawing it again, turning about within the chamber so that it had free view outward, preening, reaching upward with its foot and scratching its head. And all this movement was free because the space was wide.
Each of the parents seemed to have its own path of approach to the nest. One of them came almost invariably to a particular position on the trunk, about 6 feet below and to the right, and hopped up thence to the entrance, but the other bird followed a different course.
I was impressed , too, with the comparative silence of the birds at their nesting tree. Such small converse as took place there (a flicker-like wuck-a-wuck--and it occurred irregularly) was so soft as to be scarcely audible to human ears at a distance of fifty yards.
The feeding of the young is by regurgitation; and, while the young are still small and remain at the bottom of the nesting cavity, the parents may be seen to follow an interesting routine. The incoming bird hops to the hole, perches on the ridge of the entrance passageway, and then swings inward and downward, at the same time elevating the posterior part of its body until the tail presses upon the outer upper rim of the hole. In this position, evidently, the parent's bill meets those of the nestlings. This attitude is maintained often for as much as a minute, and while it is maintained the body of the bird may be seen to shake convulsively--plainly indicating that regurgitation is in progress.
When the young are small, the parent, after feeding, does not immediately leave the nest but awaits the incoming of its mate. It then glides away on wide-spread wings; and, while I suspected that the excrement of the young is carried in the bill and dropped, I was unable to detect this. Quite possibly, in this early stage at least, the excrement is swallowed by the parent.
Charles W. Townsend (1925) gave account of a family observed in Worcester County, Mass., when the young were well developed and nearly ready to leave the nest:
On June 11, 1924, I spent five hours within twenty-five feet of the base of the stub, unconcealed, and on June 14, six hours, but after the first hour I took up a position about fifty yards away, partially concealed by bushes.
My observations may be summarized as follows: the young were fed eleven times at the first visit, four times at the second when the adults acted in a very shy manner. As a rule the female fed the young, but on three occasions the male was identified at the hole. . . .
As a rule the adult appeared suddenly at the hole, flying noiselessly through the forest. Occasionally it alighted below the hole and rapidly ascended by hops, or it alighted on some neighboring tree, and often calling like a Flicker, glided on motionless outstretched wings in a graceful curve to its young. The flight away from the hole was always direct after a preliminary downward glide and lacked the usual woodpecker undulations. . . .
Three young crowded the hole as soon as a parent appeared anywhere in the neighborhood and eagerly stretched forth their heads and necks. . . . They were always hungry and screamed with rasping voices for food, once or twice they uttered low whinnies. The adult inserted its bill to its full length into the throats of the young and vigorously regurgitated and pumped in the nourishment. . . . After feeding the young, the female on several occasions, the male on one, entered the nest, to emerge after a minute or two and glide away. Once I detected a white piece in the bill, once something dark, but the other times nothing at all.
Herbert L. Stoddard (1917) has noted the "hissing" noise of the young within the nesting cavity when the trunk is jarred, "similar to young flickers, but a great deal louder."
When the young have flown from the nest, the cavity is not utterly abandoned. I once saw one of the parent birds reenter at midday a cavity from which the young had recently flown and remain within for 40 minutes. Why, I know not. The mate accompanied this returning bird and waited near by. Maurice Brooks writes: "Nest cavities are sometimes used as roosting places after the nesting season. On the evening of August 2, 1937, at Jacksons Mill [Lewis County, W. Va.], I saw six birds (two adults and four young) enter a cavity that had held a nest earlier in the season. This was probably the brood of the year, with the parents."
Ants are the chief item of food. It is in pursuit of ants that the woodpecker cuts its great furrows in the boles of standing trees, living and dead. On examination the heart wood exposed by the woodpecker's operations will be found to have been penetrated by the labyrinthine passageways of the great carpenter ants, Camponotus herculeanus (Linnaeus).
All the observations of others that have come to my attention upon the woodpecker when actually engaged in cutting these great trunk-penetrating chasms have been made in winter and early in spring, and with them my own are in agreement. It is a natural surmise that only in winter is such heavy work done, since in summer proper food is more easily available. Another surmise along the same lines is that the disappearance of the bird from particular areas, followed after an interval of years by reappearance, may perhaps have occurred in correspondence with precisely such a fluctuation in its essential, wintertime food supply: it must find, when the ground is snow-covered, ant-infested trunks of large trees.
In September I once made leisurely observation upon a bird at work upon a dead but standing hemlock tree. With swinging, obliquely directed blows it was splitting off the outer leaves of the scalelike bark and pausing intermittently with head turned to the trunk, licking up, as I supposed, the insect life thus exposed. Again, in September, I came upon a pair feeding together upon the ground. They had been tearing up a carpet of moss that spread over damp surfaces both of wood and of rock, and I thought that their prey must be insect life that they were finding in the moss itself.
And yet again, on September 21, I watched for many minutes an adult female feeding on a charred and decayed stump that remained in a young forest of jack pines. She was perched about a foot from the ground. Her method was by deliberate and swinging blows to break away platelike fragments of still firm wood, and then to intrude her bill and search with her tongue (as was evident) the opened cavity. This licking was always, or nearly always, upward, and often the head was turned, crown inward, throat outward. A jay might call or some other forest sound be heard, and the bird would pause, listen for an instant, and then resume her work. A day or two later I visited the stump and with my knife made an incision in it, and I found it to be the home of a colony of ants--not of the large Camponotus but of a smaller, wine-black species about a quarter of an inch long. The body of the stump was honeycombed with their galleries.
Of the major wintertime operations Vickers (1910) has written:
Like the flicker, the [pileated woodpecker] is a great lover of ants, which accordingly occupy a large place in his bill-of-fare. So, to dine on the big black timber ants, which are his special delight, he drives holes to the very heart of growing forest trees, tapping the central chamber of the colony, where, in winter, he finds the dormant swarm unable to move and feasts upon them at leisure. . .And the Log-cock makes no mistakes, though man might find no outward sign of an ant-tree. Doubtless that strong formic smell, coupled with his experience in sounding tree trunks--as a man tells a ripe watermelon by the 'plunk' of it--enables him not only to find the tree, but, what is more remarkable, to drive his hole with such precision that he taps the heart of the community.
O. M. Bryens (1926) wrote from St. Joseph County, Mich.:
On February 16, 1925, I was able to approach within twelve feet of one of these Woodpeckers busily engaged in digging in a maple stub, two feet in diameter and about twelve feet high. He was after insects whose borings I found later upon examining the wood. I watched him for about an hour.
He seldom gave more than three or four pecks at a time, and would then swing his head round to one side or the other, sometimes raising his scarlet crest. He seldom threw back his head without tossing a chip back of him, and when I examined his work after he had left, later in the day, I found some chips near the stub, which were three inches long and one inch wide. Others half this size had been thrown out on the snow a distance of four feet. The hole was on the west side and measured six inches across and ten inches long, and extended to a depth of six inches toward the heart of the stub. There was another hole six inches square on the south side. The bird seemed to chisel out a section three inches wide across the hole and then move down and cut out another section. The two holes were dug in about two hours.
Of summertime feeding Ora W. Knight (1908) says: "Except the Flicker this is the only species of Woodpecker I have observed feeding on the ground, but this species likes to tear open the ant hills found in open places in the woods and feed on the ants and their larvae." He also says that in the fall these birds eat "dogwood berries, choke and black cherries and other wild fruits and berries, also beechnuts and acorns for which it has a decided fondness."
Dr. Sutton (1930) says:
The food of this species in Pennsylvania, according to official examination of four stomachs, is largely of ants. The stomach and crop of a male specimen weighing nine ounces, collected at Northumberland, Northumberland County, on November 10, 1928, contained 469 carpenter ants (Camponotus herculaneus), most of them so recently swallowed as to permit counting of them easily. The stomach of a female taken at Aitch, Huntingdon County, on November 30, 1928, contained the remains of at least 153 carpenter ants, one small carabid beetle, the legs of a small bug (apparently a squash-bug), and 17 wild grapes, swallowed hole.
F. E. L. Beal (1911) gave the results of examination of the contents of 80 stomachs collected far and wide throughout the range of the species. Animal food amounted to 72.88 percent; vegetable, 27.12 percent. Beetles made up 22.01 percent of the total, and ants 39.91 percent. As many as 2,600 ants were counted in a single stomach. The ants were "mostly of the larger species that live in decaying timber." Ants and beetles together made up the bulk of the food (61.92 percent).
The Biological Survey (A. L. Nelson) has kindly made reply to my inquiry concerning stomach examinations of the subspecies abieticola alone. Data were available from 23 specimens, three collected in January, two in June, two in July, six in October, eight in November, and two in December. They were collected, two in Canada, two in New Brunswick, four in New York, four in Pennsylvania, six in Michigan, two in Illinois, two in Minnesota, and one in Iowa.
Animal food amounted to 83 percent of the whole; vegetable, 17 percent, with but a trace of gravel (one stomach only). The chief item was ants, principally large black ants, such as Camponotus and Crematogaster; this item alone constituted 60 percent of the whole. The animal food otherwise consisted of a variety of beetles and of a very few (2 percent) caterpillars. The vegetable food was made up of wild berries (Ilex, Cassine, Vitis cordifolia, Nyssa sylvatica, and Viburnum nudum--in all, 11 percent of the whole), mast (2 percent), and rotten wood (4 percent).
Catesby's (1731) assertion, repeated time and again by the earlier writers, that the pileated woodpecker sometimes pierces the husks of maize standing in the field, was almost certainly based on faulty observation. No modern confirmation is to be found of this or of any other predatory practice. To the contrary, the finding after careful investigation (Beal, 1911) is: "The food of the pileated woodpecker does not interest the farmer or horticulturist, for it is obtained entirely from the forest or the wild copses on its edge. This bird does not visit either the orchard or the grain field, and all its work in the forest helps to conserve the timber. . . . Its killing should be strictly prohibited at all times."
Behavior.--The bird is but little known--surprisingly little, considering how large a bird it is. It is a forest dweller; it lives almost wholly within the canopy of the treetops; it is alert, furtive (almost) as a bear, rather silent in midsummer (the season when city dwellers ordinarily visit the northern forests); and it easily eludes observation. It is not strange then that, its gigantic operations remaining in evidence, the bird itself should in common thought have become a somewhat fabulous creature. Thoreau (1906) never saw it; and this is what he wrote of it in the Moosehead Lake journal under date of July 25, 1857: "Our path up the bank here led by a large dead white pine, in whose trunk near the ground were great square-cornered holes made by the woodpeckers. . . . They were seven or eight inches long and four wide and reached to the heart of the tree through an inch or more of sound wood, and looked like great mortise-holes whose corners had been somewhat worn and rounded by a loose tenon. The tree for some distance was quite honeycombed by them. It suggested woodpeckers on a larger scale than ours, as were the trees and the forest."
To one who visits its haunts the presence of the pileated woodpecker is immediately made manifest by operations such in magnitude as to have astonished Thoreau. Dead Norway pines may be found, gaunt and bare, their bark split away in plates and lying heaped at the base, and living white pines--young trees, particularly--pierced to the core with deep pyramidal incisions. The freshly cut wood gleams clean, and turpentine in pellucid globules rims the cut and drips downward. Great boles of maples and basswoods stand, furrowed from broken top to base, the ground below littered with splinters, often half a hand's breadth in extent. The cuts are roughly rectangular in outline. They may be 4, 5, or even 6 or 8 inches wide and are sunk deep into the heart of the tree. They may extend vertically for a few inches or for a foot or more. They may be aligned in vertical rows, and may run together in furrows of several feet in length. Crumbling stumps and moss-covered logs lying on the forest floor will often be found ripped and torn by the woodpecker's beak.
It is, as has been said, a wary creature, and is not easily stalked. On one occasion, when I had successfully approached a male that was idling in the top of a gaunt chestnut near the nesting tree, I paused, before shifting from an uncomfortable position, until the bird should sidle around the limb. Even so, he was quicker than I; for, before I had completed my movement, he was peering from the opposite side, and, detecting me, was off. Again I came upon a bird--a male--suddenly, in open forest. He did not immediately take wing, but, hitching downward upon the tree trunk, he reached the ground, hopped off, and then flitted away through the undergrowth, so that I scarcely saw him go. And when I came upon him again he repeated the maneuver.
With all their alertness, the birds have a large store of curiosity. Dr. Sutton (1930) has remarked that some individuals will "fly up hastily and boldly upon hearing a commotion in the woods." They may sometimes be called up by imitating their cry, by clapping together the cupped palms of one's hands, or by pounding with a billet of wood upon a tree trunk. I was following one morning a forest trail, where I knew a pair of the woodpeckers to be in residence, and had a glimpse, as I walked, of a large bird flying away. There stood against the sky, in the direction of the retreat, the stub of a great treetop. Pausing in my tracks, I waited until, after a few minutes, the suspected woodpecker came leaping up the stub--to have a look at me, as I supposed. In such case, the square shoulders of the bird, the slender white-striped neck, and the hammer head with its pointed scarlet crest are very conspicuous.
Maurice Brooks (1934) has remarked upon the playfulness of the birds when at ease.
For all their alertness, it remains still to be said that on occasion, when the birds are feeding, or when tending a nestful of young, it is possible to approach quietly and to remain watching, while they, unheeding, continue their activities.
It is common to find hairy and downy woodpeckers associated with the pileated, both on nesting grounds and when feeding. There is here, I believe, some measure of commensalism. I have in mind an observation upon a downy on the same dead hemlock tree with a pileated woodpecker. The larger bird was scaling off the bark and feeding; the smaller seemed to be gleaning over areas the pileated had left.
Tucked in the niche formed by a great furrowlike incision in the bole of a basswood tree, and about 10 feet from the ground, I once found a nest of the olive-backed thrush.
When I cut down the stub of which I have spoken, and which contained four old nesting cavities of the pileated woodpecker, I found the lowest, 25 feet from the ground, to be occupied by a family of white-footed mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), and I have no doubt that these cavities, after their abandonment by the woodpeckers, are commonly used by flying squirrels, by owls, and by tree-nesting ducks.
Prof. Brooks (1934) has most engagingly described the enticement of pileated woodpeckers to come to feeding trays, and, incidentally, has adduced evidence of their traits of caution and of curiosity. To this he adds: "I have indicated, in an article in Bird-Lore, that we have found Pileated woodpeckers something of clowns. The gourd experience described in the above-mentioned article seemed to be in a spirit of play. The evident curiosity displayed by many birds observed is noteworthy; under this urge they apparently lose much of their fear. Around our blinds they have used a slow and cautious approach, but once at the feeding shelves, they have not been particularly nervous or excitable. At times I have found them surprisingly tame in the open woods."
The pileated woodpecker lives, as has been said, almost entirely within the forest cover. Its flight is commonly a matter of gliding and of slow-measured flapping through the trees. Its appearance then is unmistakable--large and black, with a flashing pattern of white beneath the wings, and a gleaming scarlet crest.
At times it rises above the treetops or moves over greater distances, and then its manner of flight bears greater likeness to the typical bounding or galloping flight of the generality of woodpeckers. Its outline against the sky is not unlike a kingfisher's. Dr. Sutton (1930) describes an encounter in the Pennsylvania mountains with a bird that "cackled for about fifteen minutes, pounding intermittently on a tree trunk. It then rose in air, mounted to a plane above the tree-tops, and flew in direct course down the valley, uttering a single, loud, even-toned puck about every two seconds, as far as we could hear it. The bird was still flying high when it faded from view."
Cornelius Weygandt (1912) described from Monroe County, Pa., the appearance of "the logcock that in late July and early August made the sunset hour more memorable by its passing":
It was on the evening of July 26 that we first saw him. . .we noticed a large bird flying heron-like toward us. He passed us and made his way onward toward a tall broken-topped gum tree that stood out black against the sunset. He "landed" on its side near the top, woodpecker fashion, and bobbed down trunk backwards for several yards. The sky was mauve and gold and crimson, and the great bird loomed blacker and bigger than he really was, limned sharply against it. He had not dropped along like the smaller woodpeckers, but had kept on more steadily, very like a heron, with only slight risings and fallings. After a rest on the gum tree of some three minutes he flung himself into the air and dove down into the Buck Hill Gorge.
Vickers (1915) characterizes the bird's flight as "powerful and straight-forward, his head and neck carrying his powerful beak like a spear. . .[the bird] large as a crow and with a certain short, sturdy, kingfisherlike aspect."
In general conclusion it may be said that the pileated woodpecker has the habit and manner of a giant, forest-loving flicker.
Voice.--Throughout the greater part of the year the pileated woodpecker is a relatively silent bird, but during the nesting season drumming and calling are frequent. The usual call is a cackle, resembling that of the flicker, though louder and of more sonorous quality. The "song" of the white-breasted nuthatch so far resembles it in pitch and tempo that a nuthatch near at hand may, for an instant, suggest the woodpecker far away. The ka, ka, ka of the woodpecker's cackle is variable in quality, in speed of iteration, and in continuity, and seems to be expressive, sometimes of alarm, sometimes of companionship, sometimes of contentment. Aretas A. Saunders (1935) has noted that often there is rise in pitch at the beginning of a rendition and a slight fall at the end; and Samuel Scoville, Jr. (1920), distinguishing this from the flicker's similar call, has remarked on "a queer little quirk at the end." When a pair of birds cackle in alternation, as commonly they do, a difference in pitch will be noted; but whether that be a constant sexual difference, or a matter of individuality merely, I cannot say.
In the nesting season the mated birds have another flickerlike wuck-a-wuck call that seems to be peculiarly associated with their conjugal relationship. They use it in courtship and when they relieve one another in attendance at the nest.
Dr. Sutton (1930) mentions yet another call and describes it as "whining notes, suggesting the mew of the yellow-bellied sapsucker." But is is more than that. It is a loud cry, that resembles the scream of a hawk. It is commonly reiterated slowly in five or six repetitions. Unless one were to follow the sound and discover its source, he would hardly impute it to this bird. It too, I believe, is a call peculiar to the nesting season.
When the bird is in flight a slowly uttered puck, puck may sometimes be heard, and sometimes what for lack of a better term may be called a creaking of the moving wings.
Besides these there is a high-pitched scream--"a bugle call," says Florence Merriam Bailey (1902), with which the bird greets the rising sun. Horace W. Wright (1912) has noted that in June the bird is first heard within a few minutes after sunrise and has described the awakening thus: "There are eight records, when a bird has been heard loudly rapping in the distance with slow and measured blows or has called lustily and long, sometimes answered by another."
Enemies.--The number of eggs laid suggests that there must be some wastage: that somewhere in the round of life the bird must be peculiarly exposed to destruction; and to this point Dr. Sutton (1930) speaks:
The Duck Hawk (Rhynchodon peregrinus anatum) appears to be the chief, indeed perhaps the only, natural enemy of this woodpecker in this State [Pennsylvania]. At Spruce Creek, Huntingdon County, where these falcons have nested for years, I found, on March 21, 1921, the head and plumage of a male woodpecker which had not been dead long. Near Palmerton, Carbon County, I saw a Duck Hawk pursue and with ease strike down a pileated woodpecker that had started to fly across the river. The hawk flew so fast that the woodpecker seemed to have been unaware of the pursuit. A cloud of feathers burst from the body of the victim as it collapsed. The duck hawk apparently winters regularly along some of our streams, and takes whatever comes along, with a preference, perhaps, for the somewhat larger birds; and to it the comparatively clumsy log cock falls easy prey. So far as I know, neither the great horned owl nor the Cooper's hawk ever captures the bird, and our stomach examinations of several hundred Goshawks revealed none of its bones or plumage, though this savage predator no doubt occasionally captures such birds as are to be found throughout the winter.
R. B. Simpson (1910) wrote: "I once shot a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was making a desperate attempt to catch a pileated. . . . A year or two ago in summer along a trout stream in virgin forest back in the mountains [of northern Pennsylvania], I came to a mossy spot where a pileated had been wrecked and a close inspection showed the tracks of a huge wildcat who had no doubt caught the big woodpecker on the ground or on a log." See also Bendire (1895).
In addition to man's disturbance of habitat with which this paper has had largely to do, the following matters are noteworthy:
Pennant (1785) wrote that the Indians made a practice of decking their calumets with the crests of these birds. And see Bendire (1895).
Audubon (1842) said of the pileated woodpecker: "Its flesh is tough, of a bluish tint, and smells so strongly of the worms and insects on which it generally feeds, as to be extremely unpalatable." Sutton (1930), however, was able to show, both by the testimony of living witnesses and by written record as well, that these birds, along with other smaller birds, were once commonly exposed for sale as food in city markets.
Major Bendire (1895) wrote:
I have occasionally seen bunches of these birds, numbering from four to twelve, exposed for sale in the markets of Washington, D. C. . . . I tried to eat one, when short of meat, while traveling through the Blue Mountains of Oregon, but I certainly can not recommend it. It feeds to a great extent on the large black wood ants, which impart to it a very peculiar, and to me an extremely unpleasant flavor, a kind of sweet-sour taste, which any amount of seasoning and cooking does not disguise, and I consider it as a very unpalatable substitute for game of any kind.
Winter.--As is true of other members of the family, the pileated woodpecker may in fall be found digging for himself a cavity for winter occupancy. Few birds other than the woodpeckers make what may be called habitations, except as part of or incident to the activities of reproduction. And in the case of the woodpeckers, while I know that in particular instances these winter retreats are not so used, I am unable to say that they never are subsequently used as nesting cavities.
Hoyes Lloyd (1932) wrote:
One of the most delightful bird adventures we have had at Rockcliffe Park [near the City of Ottawa] was the visit to us of a pileated woodpecker. It first came at 4:30 p.m., on October 12, 1928, and excavated a hole in a hollow basswood for sleeping quarters. . . . The chips, from live wood, were up to three inches by two inches in area, and an eighth of an inch thick. Each chip had two or three gouge-like beak marks across its surface. At 4:50 p.m. on the next day the pileated came home, and although we were all outdoors, it went directly to its own tree and after a brief survey of affairs in the vicinity, retired. The approach was silent except, possibly for a single Flicker-like note in the distance. About 9 a.m., on the 14th, our bird woke me up with a loud "kuk-kuk-kuk" call and it looked very large as it climbed up the home basswood. Promptly at quarter to five it came home, undoubtedly after a day among the big hardwoods of the neighborhood. We were all impressed by its great length of neck, as it swung its head with a curious bobbing motion, that was used, without doubt, to give a view on each side of the home tree, before going into the hole for the night. A pileated, thought to be the same bird, came back on March 22, 1929, possibly, or certainly on the 23rd, and slept in its winter home.
Prof. Brooks writes: "At French Creek [Upshur County, W.
Va.], two birds used a nesting cavity as a roosting place during
the following winter."
Pileated Woodpecker* Dryocopus pileatus [Northern Pileated Woodpecker]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1939. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 171-189. United States Government Printing Office