On seeing pileated woodpeckers

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest members ot the family, rather comical and awkward looking, at that. It’s also not commonly seen, so sightings are always exciting, at least if you have an eye for birds. (Pronounced PIE-lee-ay-tid or PILL-ee-ay-tid, by the way.)

I remember one of my first encounters was while having dinner with the Ostroms at their house perched atop a wooded ravine outside Bloomington, Indiana. One alighted just outside the window, to our shared surprise and wonder.

More recently, as I was driving with my elder daughter down a road in Maine, one was flying just ahead of us but veered off before she could look up.

A week later, on a different road, the same thing happened.

She accuses me of making those up.

So the other day, after a meeting at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Durham, I noticed two people in the parking lot who were staring at something in the trees just beyond. I caught the red head and then the full bird. Yup. Amazing, considering this was an urban neighborhood.

And then, on another trunk, I spotted on more red head and big body, which then swooped down to join the first.

The pileated ‘pecker is a large bird – 16 to 19 inches long with a wingspan up to 30 inches, as I’m reading, likely the largest of its family in North America – and they can do some serious damage to trees they decide to nest in. Think of a beaver with wings. Again, from some quick referencing online, I’d guess you can look for a nest based on the pile of wood chips below.

My companion, in her early 90s, apologized that she’s never been able to really see birds, not even as a child. “My eyesight’s always been poor,” she apologized. So much for a witness. At least she could attest that two others were also commenting on the birds before us.

As for said daughter? She insists I’m making this up, too.

For the record, I don’t think I ever seen more than one classic redheaded woodpecker in my life. Hairy woodpeckers and downeys and flickers, of course, are another matter. Old friends, I’d say.

Of course, the Woody Woodpecker cartoons don’t count, do they?

Not my picture, alas. Bird photography is truly a specialty.
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3 thoughts on “On seeing pileated woodpeckers

  1. Oh, I love this post!
    My first encounter with one of these funny birds happened 29 years ago. We had just moved to our new house here in the woods of central Massachusetts. I was pregnant, exhausted and a little overwhelmed. I stepped onto my deck at sunset, and looked out into the woods behind our house. In the sky, in a small clearing, I spotted a large silhouette of a bird, circling in the air above the marsh. I saw a crested a head, a long, sharp beak and oddly pinioned wings.
    “Huh?” I thought. “That’s a pteradactyl.”
    I went back inside and never said a word to a soul, until the following spring, when the bird landed in our yard and I saw what it really was.
    “Woody Woodpecker!” I said, this time right out loud.

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