Bay Journal

Thwack of a head enough to restore peace to one’s soul

  • By Michael Burke on November 01, 2006
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Pileated woodpeckers use their long necks for leverage as they rear back and let go with a powerful thwack each time their chisel-like bill is sent hammering into a tree in their search for prey.  (Jacob Dingel / Pennsylvania Game Commission)

We sat on the front porch chatting idly, watching the nearby Nanticoke River drift by. Conversation touched on the war in Iraq and other troubles haunting the world. The day was bright, but the talk had an ominous undertone. We were interrupted by a loud “thwack” followed a few moments later by a second and then a third. After a brief pause, we heard it again. The sound was coming from high up a tree near the end of the driveway. A pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) was looking for dinner.

Pileateds are crow-size birds, 17 inches from beak to tail.

They love carpenter ants and will excavate large rectangular holes in trees in search of the insects. These big woodpeckers use their long necks for leverage as they rear back and let go with a powerful thwack each time their chisel-like bill is sent hammering into a tree.

When the bird has opened a cavity, it will probe the hole with its tongue, extracting ants or other insects in a remarkably efficient fashion. The tongues of woodpeckers are extraordinary. They are barbed at the end and sticky, both effective adaptations for catching insect prey. Their tongues can also be quite long—up to 5 inches in some species.

To accommodate that unwieldy length, they have evolved some rather elegant, albeit bizarre, anatomy. For the pileated, that barbed tip is just the working end of a series of structures (called the hyoid apparatus) that extends back through the mouth, wraps all the way behind the skull, over the top of the head, down across the forehead, and eventually anchors at the base of the big bird’s nose. When a pileated sticks out its tongue, its entire head is in on the action. In the hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), the tongue extends behind the skull and then loops around the right eyeball.

When looking at a pileated woodpecker, one can’t help but be impressed with its size and dramatic red crest. They are our largest woodpeckers except for the recently rediscovered ivory-billed—assuming those accounts are accurate.

The pileateds are primarily black birds, with white throats and matching stripes that start on the face and extend down those long necks. They also show extensive white under their wings, as well as a white flash on the top.

Females, like the one we saw at the end of the driveway, have a big red crest. In males that crest is even more impressive, as it stretches across the forward to the base of the bill. Males also have a patch of red feathers on each cheek that birders typically refer to as a mustache.

Pileated woodpeckers generally form mating pairs. Both sexes help to build the nest, which is a cavity in a large tree. Fittingly, wood chips serve as the base for the eggs, which take two weeks to hatch. The birds take another month before they fledge. Mating pairs typically produce two broods each year.

The large woodpeckers inhabit the entire eastern United States and Canada. Their range reaches across Canada to the Pacific and down again into the U.S. Northwest. They are year-round residents, although they will roam far from their resident territory during the nonbreeding season. Pileated woodpeckers numbers are increasing across their range, largely because of the spread of second-growth forest in areas that had previously been logged or farmed.

The big trees lining this section of the Nanticoke on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are prime habitat. The bird we spotted was just the closest of several flying over the wide river or along its wooded shoreline that we saw that weekend.

When the big female began hammering away, I was up out of my seat with binoculars in hand. We prowled around the tree for several minutes until the woodpecker finally showed herself. As we retreated to the porch minutes later, she let out one of those harsh, wild staccato calls the birds use to communicate with one another.

Pileateds are no backyard birds. They need big, mature trees and plenty of them to meet their habitat needs. This section of the Nanticoke had seen little development. Large tracts just upstream were permanently protected through various purchases and easements. The biggest property downstream was privately owned, but it is largely managed for habitat purposes. This wasn’t quite the wilderness, but it still had a primitive feel to it.

The despair for the world that had been haunting us had slipped away. The pileated’s broad wings lifted her in a graceful flight over the water, carrying the weight of the bird as well as my world-weary cares. We were, in the words of the poet Wendell Berry, in “the peace of wild things.”

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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