The pileated woodpecker has “WOW” power. That’s because of its size, the pattern of its plumage, its sound and its relative scarcity.

This woodpecker isn’t rare or endangered. There just aren’t very many of them. They require quite specific habitat and an expansive territory.


Yet every winter, pileated woodpeckers wander in search of food, and this often brings them into Grand Forks. That has happened again this season.

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To be clear, the pileated woodpecker is a conspicuous bird. The largest North American woodpecker, it is the size of a crow, and could potentially be mistaken for that much more common bird – except that in flight, it flashes large patches of white in its wings. At rest, it clings to tree trunks and bird feeders.

It’s the feeders that bring the birds into the city – feeders and hanging fruit. Pileated woodpeckers seem to be especially fond of crabapples. They are also drawn to suet or to animal fat offered straight, so to speak. I have known people to leave deer carcasses out to attract these woodpeckers (and such other birds as bald eagles, magpies and swamp sparrows) – but not in town, of course.

During nesting season, pileated woodpeckers seek out deep woods, especially those with dead timber. This is abundant along the Red River, where many elms have succumbed to Dutch elm disease, and in the Devils Lake region, where the rising lake level has drowned lakeside forests. The birds have been known to nest in relatively small areas of woodland, such as Turtle River State Park, but they occur more commonly in large woodlands, such as those in the Pembina Gorge, for example. Occasionally, reports emerge of pileated woodpeckers nesting in aging farm shelterbelts, but none has ever graced my property. I have a lot of dead timber and leave it standing in the hope that it will attract woodpeckers.

The one and only pileated woodpecker that has shown up at our place west of Gilby, N.D., came for the crabapples. When the tree became diseased, the pileated woodpecker went after whatever grubs were hiding in the decaying wood. No pileated has been seen here since I took the tree down and enlarged my garden.

This fondness for decaying wood is a special trait of pileated woodpeckers, and they are capable of destroying a tree trunk in a short space of time. This produces a good deal of noise, but that’s not the noise most associated with pileated woodpeckers. They have a loud, rattling call, rather like Woody Woodpecker.

The sexes can be told apart. Both have red at the crest of the head; males have a second area of red on the cheeks.

We’re near the westernmost edge of the pileated woodpecker’s range. In general, the Great Plains to our west don’t provide enough timber to make a pair of pileated woodpeckers comfortable. They do occur in the forest zone across Canada and in the northern Rockies and the Pacific Coast states. Everywhere in its range, the pileated woodpecker is present year-round, although they do wander a bit in winter.

That’s the season in which we appreciate their “WOW” power.

There are some lasting arguments about this woodpecker. How to pronounce its name is one. Is it PILL-eated, PIE-le-ated or PILE-ated? I say pileated, with four syllables short I, long E and long A.

Some ornithologists cling to the hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a larger version of the pileated, might survive in isolated swamps in the American South. This was fueled by a report about a sighting in Louisiana. A diligent search failed to turn up any ivory bills, however. Cameras and recording equipment have been set up to record any ivory-bill that might pass by. So far, none has.

There may be hope for the survival of the species in Cuba.

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Despite a lack of timber, North Dakota has several woodpecker species; in our area, downy and hairy woodpeckers are common, and red-bellied woodpeckers are becoming regular. These are year-round birds. Red-headed woodpeckers occur in summer. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and northern flickers nest in the area, and flickers can be quite abundant in migration. Both sapsuckers and flickers are woodpeckers, despite the names.

Minnesota, a more heavily forested state, has all of these species, and black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, to boot.

Lewis’ woodpecker, a western species, has been seen in both states.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs