Pileated Woodpecker attacking his reflection


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: A pileated woodpecker has been attacking his reflection in outside rear view mirrors of cars as well as his reflection in the windows of homes of a suburb near Syracuse, NY. Windows and mirrors have been smashed.

This is a copy of my column that appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard on June 12, , 2004

Kathleen Boswell sent in her April Feeder Survey Report that listed a pileated woodpecker. She commented, “I didn’t see it, but our neighbor saw one breaking our mirror on the car in the driveway. Does this count?” The bird broke another of their mirrors during the May survey week.

This bird has caused a lot of damage. It all started in the spring of 2004 on Brownell and DeVaul roads two miles north-east of Kirkville. The two roads are parallel, and separated by about a half mile of forest. Big trees grow near the homes.

A home owner on DeVaul Rd. found a badly damaged screen and suspecting a prowler or vandal, called the State Police. Neighbors were interviewed by the police and Richard Miller told them about his car mirror that had broken by a pileated woodpecker.

Several windows and car mirrors had been broken at other homes too. The police concluded that the damage on DeVaul Rd. was done by the woodpecker.

On Brownell Rd. where Kathleen Boswell lives, there was damage to windows and car mirrors at five homes. Three were hit in both years and two in 2005 only.

How can this be explained?Like all birds, the pileated will not tolerate others of its own kind near its nest.

When robins or cardinals nest near our homes, they very often catch sight of their reflection in a window. They spend fruitless hours flying up against the glass and pecking it to drive away the intruder. They never succeed in driving that “other bird” away.

However, a pileated woodpecker is the size of a crow, has a big bill and it can split out an 8 inch piece of wood from a tree with one blow if the wood is soft.

Courtesy of Hoiughten Mifflin Co.

This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America
When it attacks its reflection, the glass breaks and the image of the “intruder” disappears. It thus does “drive” that other bird away!

To illustrate what it sees when a pileated woodpecker looks in a rear view mirror of a car, Cornell Scientist Kevin McGowan prepared this illustration for me by holding a museum-mounted pileated woodpecker up to a car mirror..

Covering the mirrors with plastic grocery bags solved the problem. However, when the residents forgot to do it, the bird struck again. Eighteen mirrors have been replaced this season and Thru-Way Auto Glass estimates that they replaced 30 mirrors last year from residents of that area.

I contacted woodpecker expert Prof. Jerome Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University and he knows of no prior report in the scientific literature of car mirrors being broken by pileated woodpeckers. This particular bird seems to be unique