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The Peculiar Pileated Woodpecker

Dec 28, 2015

If Edgar Allen Poe had written about a pileated woodpecker instead of a raven, it wouldn’t have been gently tapping, rapping at his chamber door. It would have been chopping, chopping–and probably would have done the door some serious damage.

The pileated woodpecker is our largest woodpecker. The crow-sized bird uses its powerful beak to tear into decayed wood in search of beetle grubs and carpenter ants. Fist-sized, rectangular holes in dead trees and rotten stumps show where a pileated woodpecker has been at work. Often, only these holes, or perhaps the sound of distant chopping or the bird’s loud call, signal that a pileated woodpecker lives nearby. The birds are both uncommon and shy. Your best chance to discover one is to search in forests, especially in river bottoms. A few fortunate people have had a pileated woodpecker visit their suet feeders, but this is unusual.

Although this bird hasn’t found a prominent spot in literature, the pileated woodpecker has served as the inspiration for an artist’s work. Cartoonist Walter Lantz used the bird’s jaunty crest and loud call as models for his most-famous creation, Woody Woodpecker.

What Would the Pileated Woodpecker Do?

  • Pileated woodpeckers favor large forests; they excavate nest cavities in dead trees, so mature forests containing suitable nesting trees are important.
  • They eat mostly insects, nuts, fruits and sap. In winter, ants constitute much of the food supply.
  • The pileated woodpecker is an uncommon permanent resident in forested habitats throughout most of Missouri. It is most abundant in the large forests of the Ozarks, and least common in the northwest region.
  • This species plays an important role in decreasing populations of insects, many of which might seriously injure trees if left unchecked. Also, the nest cavities they create are used later by many other animals that can’t bore their own cavities.
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Learn more about the pileated woodpecker with the MDC Field Guide.

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