Like a slow parade, November’s birds arrive.
The latest entrant is the pileated woodpecker, a resident bird that grows more conspicuous as winter begins. These large woodpeckers come into settled places in early winter, often showing up on crabapple trees and at suet feeders.
They’ll hang around through the winter and return in spring to their nesting haunts, the woodlands along the Red River and around Devils Lake. Occasionally, a pair will set up in a rural shelterbelt.
The pileated woodpecker is not common, but these woodpeckers are conspicuous, both in appearance and in behavior.
They are large, to begin with, about the size of a crow. In flight, they are unmistakable, showing large patches of white under the wings. White feathers are visible topside, too, and they are easily seen, but they’re not quite so extensive there.
Like other woodpeckers, the pileated bangs away on trees. As the largest of the tribe, the pileated woodpecker makes quite a show of this. Its hammering is loud and vigorous enough to make the wood chips fly. This behavior has several purposes. First, and probably most important at this time of year, it gives access to grubs passing the season beneath the bark and even in the heartwood of dead trees. Pileated woodpeckers snack on these, even when food is more easily obtained elsewhere.
Hammering on trees is a survival technique; pileated woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and they create their own nest holes. Pounding away in winter may be an instinctive undertaking, a kind of practice for nest building.
Woodpeckers hammer for other reasons, as well. The most important is self-assertion. Drumming announces both territory and strength. It’s an important part of courtship.
December isn’t courting time for woodpeckers, of course, but it pays to advertise.
Pileated woodpeckers are vocal birds, as well. Their calls are loud and distinctive. Some people believe the maniacal laugh of the “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon character is based on the pileated woodpecker’s call. That’s a slight exaggeration; the real life call of the pileated woodpecker isn’t quite as crazy as Woody’s call.
Despite these obvious, and some would say obnoxious, traits, pileated woodpeckers are more often seen suddenly than after a search, it seems to me. It’s not unusual to see one flying across a street in the older, more forested part of Grand Forks. A walk through a quiet park – Riverside, for example – sometimes turns up a pileated woodpecker, and they might be encountered anywhere along the Red River Greenway. I’ve also seen them on the UND campus and in Memorial Park Cemetery.
Perhaps all of this betrays more of my habits than the woodpecker’s own. My birding habits were established when Suezette and I lived on the North End, in the Riverside neighborhood. At our place west of Gilby, N.D., northwest of Grand Forks, pileated woodpeckers are only occasional visitors. Back when the crabapple tree was bearing heavily, pileated woodpeckers sometimes stopped by. I took this as evidence that the species is a bit of a wanderer, seeking opportunity well away from usual nesting areas.
Probably, pileated woodpeckers are more numerous in our area now than they were 20 years ago. They’ve increased in response to improving habitat – for woodpeckers. They thrive in dead timber, and there’s plenty of that due to the spread of Dutch Elm disease along the Red River and the drowning of the forest around Devils Lake as the water has risen. Maturing shelterbelts also attract nesting woodpeckers.
Historically, the Red River was about as far west as the pileated woodpecker occurred. Its range has moved westward; nesting has been recorded in Turtle River State Park and near Devils Lake – the body of water, not the city. In the city of Devils Lake, as in Grand Forks, pileated woodpeckers are more likely to be winter visitors.
Woodpeckers of several species are dependable winter birds here. Both downy and hairy woodpeckers are residents that, like pileated woodpeckers, become more visible – though not more abundant – in winter. These two species are regulars at the suet feeders in our back yard.
Red-bellied woodpeckers have become established in our area, as well. This has historically been a bird of the southeastern United States. They’ve spread steadily northwestward in the last quarter-century or so, perhaps in response to more bird feeders, perhaps as a result of better habitat as urban forests and rural shelterbelts mature and perhaps also as a result of warmer winters.
With the pileated woodpecker, November’s bird parade comes to an end. The only expected entrant that did not show up? The snowy owl, usually a November arrival, seems to have been delayed this season.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.