The Wilder Side of Oakland County
The secrets of the Pileated Woodpecker are unfolding as the shortest day of the year approaches. With less human activity along the trails, increased visibility, and audible clues, encounters with this magnificent woodpecker are increasing from dawn to dusk. Welcome to the world of the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus Pileatus), the largest woodpecker of North America, forest bird extraordinaire of Oakland County Parks, and perhaps the most striking forest bird of our woodlands.
The Pileated Woodpecker is a year round resident of Oakland County and is quickly recognized by its black body, white stripes down the neck, and the most easily identifiable marking, its brilliant flame-red crest. No other bird possesses these markings. The Pileated is a very big bird, and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that both the male and female are from 15.7 to 19.3 inches long. The Pileated is also a master carpenter, creating large rectangular-shaped holes during their endless quest for their favorite food, carpenter ants. Grubs and hibernating bugs also fall prey during the cold months as the woodpecker uses its long barbed tongue to snare wood-boring larvae and other meaty treats.
Early last week on a foggy, frosty- gray morning, I hiked the trails of Independence Oaks County Park, a 1,276-acre wooded and hilly landscape that provides an excellent habitat for the species. Barely 10 minutes into my trek I heard the first penetrating call, and then caught a glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight not far from the shoreline of Crooked Lake. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the vocal variations of the Pileated Woodpecker this way,
“Pileated Woodpeckers are quite vocal, typically making a high, clear, and series of piping calls that lasts several seconds. The sound is quite similar to a Northern Flicker’s rattling call, although it tends to be more resonant and less even in tone, with changing emphasis or rhythm during the call. Pileated Woodpeckers also give shorter calls that sound like wuk, wuk or cuk, cuk to indicate a territory boundary or to give an alarm.”
Moments after this red-crested landed on a dead shoreline ash tree, another rattling call resonated through the woods. The call silenced the chatter of a red squirrel protesting my intrusion. A three second burst of loud tree-whacking from the powerful Pileated bill confirmed this beauty was on a breakfast hunt. Just as I stood up from my fallen log viewing perch to leave the woodpecker to his morning meal, another Pileated sounded off from the far side of the fog-shrouded lake.
The healthy woodlands of Oakland County with their abundance of standing snags, creates a perfect matrix for the Pileated Woodpecker. In return, these woodpeckers alter habitats to the benefit of other species. The nest hole excavations created by the Pileated are sometimes commandeered by screech owls, chickadees, wood ducks, bats and smaller woodpeckers. This is a reminder of the paraphrased words attributed to John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The connections and attachments created by the Pileated Woodpecker are obvious for anyone who takes the time to walk slowly, stop often, look and listen as they wander the Wilder Side of Oakland County.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.