Is it unusual to have a pileated woodpecker visit a suet feeder?

Bird Column for January 25, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

From C.L. of Pennellville. A pileated woodpecker began to take suet from our suet feeder in June and to our great enjoyment, was here about twice each day for four days. I always thought that these birds were elusive and stayed away from homes and people. Isn't this one a bit unusual?

Dear C.L.: Yes, pileated woodpeckers are quite wary and when I see one, it is usually only a glimpse as it flies off through the woods and out of sight.

CAPTION: The crow-sized pileated woodpecker inhabits the deep woods, is wary and generally flies away when people come near. The male is shown in this painting from the "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America," fifth edition. Note the red crest and the red "mustache". The female, shown on the left, differs in having a black forehead and a black "mustache". ( Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Company)

Over the 48 years I have been writing this column, This is only the fourth report of a fairly tame pileated woodpecker that regularly visits a suet feeder. There are always a few listed on the monthly feeder surveys, but they do not usually make a habit of coming to a feeder. For example, out of 100 reports for the December, 2003 survey, only three people listed the pileated woodpecker. I do not know whether those birds were just seen in the yard or whether they came to feed.

While this bird lives in the woods on the 50 acres we own, only once in awhile has it visited my suet feeder.

Courtesy of John De Pasquale of Auburn, NY

Although it is hard to see this bird, you can tell it is around when you spot large rectangular or square holes in trees. While most holes are three to four inches high, sometimes they are up to 18 inches in length and 10 inches across. They even may be 8 to 10 inches deep and the pile of chips on the ground below the tree can be 2 feet deep.

Carpenter ants are the favorite food of this great woodpecker. These ants penetrate the tree from below ground and eat out the center of it. Their work usually does not show on the outside.

When hunting for food, this woodpecker first taps the tree here and there. This disturbs the ants and it can hear them running about. The bird moves over the tree, tapping and then stops and tilts its head to one side and listens.

When it finds the right spot, it digs furiously. Large chips fly and chunks half the size of a mans hand will be cut out and tossed to the ground. When it has opened up the tree as far as the ants nest, it begins to feed as the insects scatter.

It has a tongue especially adapted for getting insects out of cracks and holes in the tree. It is cylindrical in shape and consists of a slender bone covered on the outside with a muscular sheath. The tip is hard and horny and barbed at the end.

The tongue moves like a striking snake. The hard tip can strike a soft bodied insect with quite a blow, penetrating and fastening itself into the insect so that it can be drawn back to the mouth.

When the insects are covered with a hard outer surface, the barb doesn't work as well. So, for ants and beetles, the tongue has another feature which enables it to pick them up. At the end there is a coating of sticky saliva that acts something like flypaper. When the tongue touches an ant, the insect is held tightly by this adhesive and soon ends up in the woodpeckers stomach. A special feature of this tongue is a sort of hinge at the tip. It enables the end of the tongue to be turned sideways so that it can reach into cracks that are off 90 degrees to the side.

When one of these great birds attacks a tree, the property owner initially is upset. However, the bird is providing a valuable service. According to Southgate Hoyt who studied the pileated woodpecker as part of his PhD requirements many years ago at Cornell, the woodpecker never dug into a tree unless there were insects there. Whenever Hoyt inspected the diggings, he found signs of insect work.

If the pileated woodpecker does peck into your tree, he almost certainly is after ants. His work generally will remove all of them.

In some cases where power poles are infested with carpenter ants, the pileated has dug into them and his work in removing the insects weakens the pole.

As I mentioned above, I have heard of other instances where an individual bird is unafraid and comes to a yard for suet. John Longear at North Rose on Sodus Bay once had a pileated that visited his suet feeder two or three times each day.

It usually announced its coming with a series of loud squawks.

Longyear got some good pictures of the bird. At first he set his camera on a tripod about 15 feet from the feeder with a long cable release that he could operate from inside the kitchen. Not having any way to reset the camera from inside the house, he had to wait until the bird left before resetting the camera.

Later he tried walking up to the camera while the bird was feeding and he found that this bird allowed him to stand right at the camera and take all the pictures he wanted!

About 35 years ago one did come right into the village of Little Falls and fed on insects that were in a stump between the sidewalk and the street. This bird was the first that many people in the town had ever seen.

The O.A. Brethens of Phoenix once had a pileated woodpecker nesting in a tree back of their home. This was really a rare treat. Generally, the bird is so wary that people who go into the woods looking for them have a hard time even getting a glimpse.

In the winter when insects are harder to find, about half of the pileated woodpecker's food is fruits and seeds. Wild or cultivated grapes will often bring one back again and again. Poison ivy berries persist into the winter and are apparently eaten without harm. The conelike fruit clusters of the staghorn sumac stay on the plant through the year and the pileated eats that too.

At feeders nut meats as well as suet will occasionally be eaten. They nest in holes in large trees in deep woods. The nesting hole is round, not rectangular like the holes it digs for insects. A few people have been able to get it to use a nesting box. If you wish to try, make the hole 3 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 inches above the 8 inch square floor. Put it 12 feet or higher in a large tree in the woods.

If you ever have a pileated woodpecker around your home or at your feeder, I would be interested to hear from you.

The best types of birdseed

BIRD COLUMN FOR January 11, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

A Question from a Reader

Dear Professor Burtt: I was in line at the check out where a store had bags of bird seed for sale. The man in front of me said, “I can't buy this, it has millet seed. Birds in the Carolinas like millet, but not birds in Syracuse."

Is this statement correct? What kind of seed should I buy?

M. G. –Manlius

Dear M.G.: When given a choice, birds show definite preferences for certain foods. They generally pick those that are nutritious and are rich in energy. Such high calorie foods contain lots of fat as well as protein. The best is sunflower seed. It contains a supply of minerals as well.

So when we feed birds we should always be sure to offer sunflower seed. Every seed eating bird that can break through the husk is attracted to this food.

A bird with a tiny bill such as the junco or tree sparrow can only pick up the scraps left after sunflower seeds have been cracked open. So we should provide some small seed for such birds.
White proso millet is excellent. It is eaten by all the common birds we see at our feeders. Syracuse birds are just as fond of it as are birds in the South. It provides about two-thirds as many calories per ounce as sunflower seed.

Millet is a grass like plant. About two million acres are planted in the U. S. each year. In addition to wild bird feed, millet is used for cattle and poultry feed as well as in cereals for human consumption.

There are four types of millet, but white proso millet seed is the best for birds. Others are red proso millet, German millet and Japanese millet.

Juncos visit about ninety-five percent of the feeders in Central NY in the winter. Tree sparrows from the far north come to half of these feeders, so we have lots of birds here that need fine grains.

( Photo, courtesy of Kevin and Jay McGowan of Dryden)

CAPTION: The American tree sparrow is the most common sparrow at feeders through the winter. Its field marks are the reddish brown cap, the black breast spot and the bill that is dark above and yellow below. Since it is not able to split open sunflower seed, we can attract it with tiny seeds such as cracked corn or white proso millet.

Another small seed that these species will eat is cracked corn.


In buying seed for birds, several factors must be considered in getting the best buy. Each of the following questions will be answered:

What seeds do birds like?

Are certain foods needed to attract certain species?

What is the cost per pound?

What type of sunflower seed is best?

Should you buy a mixture or should you buy several different types of pure seed?

Price per pound in some local stores.

Here is the cost per pound for the most important seeds for attracting birds.

· Black oil sunflower seed (24 to 32)
· Gray striped sunflower seed (28 to 38)
· Sunflower seed chips (58 to 100)
· White proso millet (24 to 28)
· Ground corn (17 to 22)
· Niger (80 to 1.49)

The cost per pound is an obvious consideration, but when you buy sunflower seed, you are paying for the husk as well as the seed inside. Since birds do not eat the husk, you need to know the price per pound of edible material to make an intelligent decision as to which sunflower seed to buy.

Lets discuss this. Most of us have been feeding sunflower seeds to birds for years. There are two kinds available, gray striped sunflower and the smaller type called black oil seed or just oil seed.
These two varieties are attractive to wild birds. The black oil seed is preferred by most birds. It also costs less per pound than the larger varieties and is the best buy.

All sunflower seed has a tough outer husk that is not eaten by birds. The discarded husks pile up under the feeder making quite a mess in the yard.
Because of this problem, some people prefer to buy sunflower chips. (Sometimes called sunflower hearts or sunflower kernels). These are available in stores that sell food for birds. They consist of the kernel, or the food-part of the sunflower seed without the husk.

The advantages of the chips are that any seed eating bird can feed upon them and there are no hulls to be raked up from the yard.

Since the chips have no husk and thus are 100% edible, how does its cost compare with the cost per pound of the edible part of whole sunflower seeds?


If we calculate the price per pound of edible material, we find that the oil seed costs 34 cents per lb, the gray striped sunflower is 56 cents per lb and the chips are 58 cents per lb. I have weighed the several types of sunflower seed and determined how much is kernel and how much is husk and thus not edible.
You will feed more birds and provide more food for your dollar by using the black oil seed.

Still the chips may be worth it for you if you wish to avoid having to clean up of the mess due to the husks.

In addition, if you have a tiny feeder fastened to a window by a suction cup and do not have much space in which to put the seed, then you can get more real food into the feeder if you use the chips.

What is the best buy for the tiny seeds like millet and cracked corn?

They can easily eat the sunflower chips, but the most economical food for them is cracked corn. It costs from 17 to 22 cents per pound. The corn will become moldy if it gets soaked by the rain and so it is best to put it in a hopper-type feeder so that much of it remains dry until eaten.

While the millet is more expensive than cracked corn for these birds, it has the advantage that its hard seed coating resists swelling and rotting. It flows out of hopper feeders without clogging them.

There is another seed called niger seed. This is a very tiny black seed from a small sunflower native to Africa. The husk is of no problem to any bird. Finches of all kinds relish it. It is very attractive to goldfinches, pine siskins, house finches, and chickadees. It is best dispensed in a tubular, plastic cylinder type feeder.

Niger is the most expensive of the seeds that we feed the birds and prices today run from about 80 cents to $1.50 per pound if you buy it in 50 pound lots. It is well worth the expense for it does bring in these finches.


Sunflower seed, cracked corn, niger and white proso millet are the most useful seeds to feed birds. However, there is a mistaken notion that leads people to believe that a mixture of seeds will bring a greater variety of birds. This is just not true.

When the sunflower and white proso millet seeds become expensive, some seed companies load a mixture with commercial grains that are inexpensive to them, but of little value as wild bird foods. If the blend has an overall reddish color it means that it contains some useless ,cheap seed such as kaffir corn, milo and wheat.

The problem with using any such mixture is wastage. When a bird prefers one seed over others in a mixture, most of the seeds it does not want are scattered to the ground and wasted.

Personally, I prefer to buy the seeds separately. I put only one food in a given feeder and birds can pick the feeder that has the seed they want. You are not wasting your money on seeds that birds do not eat.

If you have only a single feeder, then of course you must provide a mixture if you want to feed different species of birds that frequent your area. Choose a blend that has lots of sunflower, corn and white proso millet. It will have a light yellow color.

It is better to install several feeders in your yard and put only a single food in each one.

Woodpeckers do eat some fine grains, but their main diet consists of insects, insect eggs and larva which they find in the bark of trees. For these birds I provide suet. Chickadees and nuthatches also like suet