Pileated Woodpeckers on a Whim

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are North America’s largest species of woodpecker. These beautiful forest birds have a wingspan of up to 30 inches and measure from 16 to 19 inches in length, with a size and shape that’s most noticeable when they cling to the trunk of a tree.

Their eye-catching triangular red crest that sweeps off the back of their heads is a perfect identification clue, even for a novice birder. As for the name “pileated,” it refers to the species’ red crest, and is derived from the Latin word pileatus which means “capped.”

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Wonderful Woodpeckers of Winter’s Approach

woodpecker on tree branch

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

It goes without saying that if you spend the day constantly hitting your forehead against a tree trunk, you will end up with a severe headache, at the very least. A concussion or brain injury may be more likely, but that’s not so for a woodpecker. Woodpeckers can spend all day pounding their heads against tree trunks at 20 times per second in search of hidden grubs and hibernating bugs and then come back for more pounding the next day. The activity is so fast that the human eye does not even notice that with each successful pounding, a woodpecker’s beak penetrates the bark, and its long sticky tongue zips in and out, snagging hidden insects and larvae.

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Woodpeckers: Master Excavators of Oakland County

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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Adult male Pileated Woodpecker searches for bugs and beetles in a dead Oakland County tree

Winged, wood-whacking, carpenters have been practicing their craft all spring. Evidence of their excavation skills is abundant, but sometimes almost hidden in plain sight. Contrary to myth, woodpeckers do not get headaches from banging away on a tree, a telephone pole, or the wood siding of a home. These master craftsmen have evolved powerful neck muscles, thick skulls and chisel-like bills that let them chip away at tree trunks with ease as they search out bugs, or create the perfect nesting cavity. Woodpeckers have a special skull bone, the hyoid bone, which functions a bit like a seat-belt for their brain. Their hyoid bone design diverts impact and vibrations away from the cranium and the woodpecker pounds on, free from headaches.

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