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.