King-o’-the Woods

February 3rd, 9 am.

Today the frost on the ground is thick but the sky is blue and clear so I know it will warm up. I am at our upland site called Plasma, adjacent to Eastside road and heading for the valley oak woodland toward the north western edge. The first wetland pond area is full of water, and the domestic geese that love to be in it are cackling and honking loudly at me. Some of these geese crossed with the wild Canada geese and are an odd-looking mix. As I enter the oak woodland the sound of loud drumming alerts me to a Pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, busily hammering a hole into one of the dead oak limbs. It is so engrossed in the task that it doesn’t notice me getting closer and taking photos. This is one of our resident woodpeckers found all over Mendocino County in mixed evergreen forests, deciduous forests, and backyards.

This fantastic woodpecker is the 6th largest woodpecker in the world. It measures 16 to 19.5 inches from tail to head and has a wingspan of 27 to 30 inches. It is most often heard before it is seen, with its raucous vocalization that has been referred to as a ‘jungle call,” a loud series of “kuk, kuk, kuk, kuk” notes that sound like a flicker call. It flies like a crow but the beautiful white and black coloration on its underwing, which is mostly white to grayish with the border thin and dark, distinguishes it from those ubiquitous crows. The large head of this woodpecker is outstanding and features a crest of crimson red. The males have a red forehead and females have a dark brown to black forehead.

The Pileated woodpecker’s favorite food is the carpenter ant, which it obsessively hunts by excavating long gaping holes and piles of chips. Watching this woodpecker drum, the chips fly everywhere and I can see the hole getting quite large as I stand there! These tree cavities are important homes for other birds such as cavity-nesting waterfowl, other woodpeckers, owls, and predatory mammals such as fisher and marten.

In the book, Petersen Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America, the author Stephen A. Shunk gives this important statement about the Pileated woodpecker. “Regardless of how you pronounce the “I” in “pileated” (both long and short “I” are correct), this giant woodpecker deserves our attention for its critical dependence on mature forests and rotting wood. The ecological health of old-growth coniferous forests and bottomland hardwoods alike can be gauged by the presence of this monarch among the woodpeckers.”

As I watch this spectacular woodpecker busy at the task of eating carpenter ants, I am once again struck with how each creature is part of a complex web of life, unique in ways we have yet to understand.