Our largest North American woodpecker, the Pileated is 16 inches from beak to tail and wingspan 2.5 feet, yet weighs only 10 oz.. Don Schuster’s photograph (Canon EOS 50D 417 mm lens) shows one characteristically clinging to an older tree and features the black and white plumage, grasping claws, and erect red crest (the Pileus, or cap, in Latin). Common in the southeast, colloquial names, such as Lord God! bird and Woodcock, have resulted from their loud call. It is likely the model for the cartoon Woody Woodpecker. This adult male differs from the female by having red forehead feathers and a red ‘malar’ streak under the yellow eye (juveniles have white eyes). Woodpeckers are unique in having zygodactyl feet (2 toes forward, 2 backward) to enable trunk climbing. Stiff tail feathers support their vertical body.
To obtain different food sources birds have evolved specialized physical adaptations. In woodpeckers, the beak is a chisel. The tongue wraps around the skull so muscles can propel and elongate the barbed, sticky tongue into crevices from which it extracts insects (ants, wood-boring beetle larvae, termites). Wild berries (including poison ivy!) and nuts are other nutritious food items.
How do woodpeckers withstand hammering wood at 20 beats/second with 1200 g-force deceleration when humans get concussions at 100 g-force. The hard but elastic beak and the thickened skull are shock absorbers that cushion the brain.
Pileated Woodpeckers are integral to the forest environment because they accelerate the recycling of nutrients and consume harmful insects. They inhabit mature forests and forage on logs, snags, dying branches and decaying trees. Their strong beaks hollow out tree cavities, providing homes for themselves and other bird and mammal species.
Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon