MIKE JACOBS/ALWAYS IN SEASON: Short walk brings a big surprise

On my way to a late-afternoon meeting one day last week, I idly wondered what bird I might see on a short walk from the Herald building to my pickup, which I routinely park behind the dike just north of DeMers Avenue.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

On my way to a late-afternoon meeting one day last week, I idly wondered what bird I might see on a short walk from the Herald building to my pickup, which I routinely park behind the dike just north of DeMers Avenue.

The range of possibilities is pretty wide.

Chipping sparrows are possible in the foundation plantings along the building. House finches are possible on the poles and wires overhead. Robins might occur in the trees along the berm, and I've seen Baltimore orioles and several species of warblers there. Rock doves, otherwise known as pigeons, are always a strong possibility, and so are crows. It's also possible to catch sight of a bald eagle soaring overhead, on a foray away from its nest along the Red River.

In the end, it was none of these expected species, however, but a surprising one: a pileated woodpecker.

I heard the bird as I rounded the dike and I soon saw it on a tree near the Sorlie Bridge. The bird took flight and headed to the Minnesota side.


The noise was loud enough to attract attention, and I heard a woman call out, "It's a pileated." That was Betsy Batstone-Cunningham, an active birder. She was leaving her job at Amazing Grains grocery in the building nearest the floodwall on the north side of DeMers Avenue.

When she saw me, she called "That's a good one!" and I answered with the same words. A pileated woodpecker is a thrill at any time or place, but to see one on the last day of May in the heart of the city -- well, that was special.

The pileated woodpecker is more likely to be encountered in the dead of winter, when several move into the city from their usual haunts in mature forest along the river. Then they can be conspicuous, alike by their size, their plumage, their calls and their behavior.

This is the largest North American woodpecker (excepting the ivory-billed of the Southeast, generally thought to be extinct). It's easily as large as a crow.

In flight, the bird shows a striking black-and-white plumage, with the white flashing as the wings beat. At close range, the red on the head is visible, and an observer recognizes instantly that this must have been the model for Woody Woodpecker.

That idea is confirmed when the bird calls. The pileated woodpecker gives a series of "wuk-wuk" notes strung together at various tempos, the fastest a fair inspiration for Woody's raucous laughing.

Males and females can be distinguished by plumage. The male has a red moustache in addition to the red topknot. The female has only the topknot. I didn't determine the gender of Thursday's pileated, since I don't routinely carry binoculars to meetings.

Pileated behavior is striking, too. These birds excavate cavities in dead timber, and an ambitious woodpecker can make short work of the decaying heart of a boxelder or cottonwood tree, leaving a heap of chips at ground level.


This behavior has several purposes. One is food, since the insects that woodpeckers relish often occur in the hearts of trees. Another is shelter. Pileateds, like other woodpeckers, take shelter in holes in trees, often using several over the course of a season. A third is home. Pileated woodpeckers excavate their own nesting sites. Finally, the excavation involves a lot of loud drumming, which serves to advertise a woodpecker's presence. It's a kind of advertising useful in the mating season.

Pileated woodpeckers have become more common here in the last two decades, probably because Dutch elm disease has killed so many trees and thus improved the habitat, from the woodpecker's point of view.

Another woodpecker species has become more common here, too, and it could be a candidate for first-bird-seen on a Greenway walk. This is the redheaded woodpecker, another striking bird. Unlike pileated woodpeckers, however, redheaded woodpeckers don't spend the winter here. They are completely migratory.

Most summers, it has been possible to find a nesting pair or two along the river. This year, there are several.

The redheaded woodpecker is aptly named. The head is completely red in both sexes, and so the bird is unmistakable. Watch for them along the Red River Greenway. Watch for pileated woodpeckers, too. Maybe they'll surprise us by moving into town.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to .

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