The large bird, having just launched itself from its perch on a great poplar tree, swooped through the forest timber in an undulating, straight-line flight. Long wings, stretched far to its sides with each culminating wing-beat, were quickly drawn within, causing, only momentarily, a slight drop in elevation, only to regain altitude with each subsequent upstroke.
Remarkably, the giant dark bird expertly negotiates the maze of woodland limbs with little regard of risk to itself. A human onlooker, wondering how such flight can be achieved, has a difficult time of it — that is, comprehending what a “bird’s eye view” really means. Can we ever hope to perceive their world as they do for themselves so marvelously well? I fear not — leastwise for me — for I’ve scarcely a feather’s weight worth of knowledge when it comes to fully grasping the avian command of sky and coordination therein.
With extraordinary deftness despite outward bulk, the big bird, spotting its destination — or more than likely, knowing full-well long beforehand — appears to draw its wings tightly against itself, dives, and then abruptly catapults vertically, yet, astonishingly, in full control of the ascent with horizontally stretched wings, followed by a slight backstroke, and commencing with a loud “kuh-whunk!” onto the bole of the tree — head up, tail down, four-toed feet grasping the craggy bark, and rigid tail feathers propping itself perpendicular, as it were.
The great bird inspects its new roost with curious, unblinking indifference one eye at a time. Seemingly sure of both its distance from danger while simultaneously evaluating the bark for interior meals, the bird then cocks its red crested head — first to one side, then to the other — as though possessing monocular X-ray vision. For me it’s hard to know: Is the bird listening to sounds of burrowing beetle larvae, or studying the tree’s exterior in search of openings to bore into, or both?
At last, a beak of chisel dimension is fabulously employed to such extent of fury that chips of wood and sawdust fly in all directions only to settle haphazardly in a pile of debris at the base of the tree. All too soon for the luckless invertebrates — often carpenter ants — the bird’s nimble tongue flits rapidly in and out as it pauses to inspect its boring and to probe deep inside to feed. The bird continues the process until it has fed full, or not full enough, and departs for yet another familiar tree or excavation it knows well.
An uncommon bird, the unmistakable woodpecker of grand proportions is a resident throughout Minnesota. From the cottonwood bottomlands of the Red River valley, to the richly forested bluff country of the southeast, to the lake lands of Detroit Lakes, and to the Paul Bunyan land of Bemidji and the Headwaters of the Mississippi River, the pileated woodpecker can be seen flying in its deliberate rolling manner, or heard by its thunderous drumming on trees with its bill, or identified by its distinctive manic call resonating through the woodlands and the gaping tree-cavities they mine so effortlessly.
The crow-size pileated woodpecker is indeed the largest and most impressive of all our North American woodpeckers. With its solid black back, a conspicuously red crested head, and a near twenty-inch long body, the woodpecker should not be confused with any other bird. The male has a red “mustache” just behind the beak, whereas the female’s version is colored black.
Its unusual name, pileated, means having a crest covering the “pileum,” or the top of the head. As many bird enthusiasts have come to appreciate, even the mere pronunciation of “pileated” is a delightfully and lively debated topic. Perhaps a more fitting and understood name would have been “red-crested giant woodpecker” or “great woodpecker,” or the like. Nonetheless, it is what it is, of course: pileated woodpecker.
It’s easy to tell where a pileated woodpecker has been if you happen to be exploring its preferred haunts of mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. The enormous woodpecker excavates notable elongated cavities into dead and dying trees. Some people might wonder why they go to the trouble of carving out such exceedingly deep excavations.
Are they eating the wood? No, but they are consuming insects and insect larvae that make their home in the deteriorating wood-layers of a particular tree. As mentioned earlier, these secretive birds actively hunt for carpenter ants they so highly prize as woodland delicacies.
Once a pileated woodpecker begins working on an ant infested tree, there is little an ant or any other wood-boring insect can do to escape. Equipped with a chisel-shaped beak and powerful head and neck muscles to back it up, not to mention a long, barbed, and sticky tongue used to snatch crawly critters, a pileated woodpecker visits and revisits selected trees until the food source has been exhausted. As it is, many an old elm or stately cottonwood, long after having died, are reduced to cavity-riddled snags from years of pileated woodpecker borings.
Such a grand bird of the forest is the pileated woodpecker. Of size bespeaking that of raptor rather than woodpecker, it certainly comes as no surprise that we human admirers turn our heads in wonderment at the sight and sound of this incredible bird. As well, we can rest assured that as long as there’s “wood in the woods”— habitat, that is — there’ll be pileated woodpeckers to gape at as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.