Who's That Laughing in the Woods?

“Ha-ha-ha-HA-ha”, is the staccato laugh of the sassy and frenzied, Woody Woodpecker, who first appeared in 1940’s cartoons. Singer Harry Babbitt, who died in 2004 at age 90, voiced the laugh of this character. Woody is modeled after the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which is a most unusual bird with its ability to bang its head against trees all day; a sound that can be truly annoying if you get one of these gawky characters on your house or in a nearby tree. Their wild screaming laugh can be unnerving the first few times you hear them, and really does sound like good old Woody Woodpecker! The drumming sound they make can be heard for miles, and is done to declare their territory whether a tree or utility pole, they stake their claim. The pileated is about 15” long, and is one of the largest woodpeckers found in North America. It has a black body, a red crest, white stripes on its neck and black and white stripes on its face. It has yellow bristly feathers over its nostrils that keep out wood chips. It has a long, sticky tongue; a long, sharp pointed bill and yellow eyes. Males and females are similar, but males have a red forehead, and females have a gray to yellowish brown forehead. The pileated woodpecker is not currently listed as a threatened or endangered species, although it is a protected species.

You can pronounce pileated two ways, with a short I-sound (pill-ee-ated) or a long I-sound (pile-ee-ated). Their homes are cavities in trees where they roost at night. Each bird normally sleeps alone, one bird per roost, even though the pileated woodpecker stays with the same mate for life. This tree hole they make will have multiple entrances to escape from predators, and provides protection from the weather. The most common predators are all the variety of hawks we have in this area as well as barred owls, weasels and squirrels. Pileated woodpeckers are one of the few birds that will literally move their eggs if they fall out of the nest to another site – a rare habit in other birds.

In the spring a new nest cavity is excavated, so be alert to that drumming and you might just have a couple woodpeckers getting ready to have their clutch which on average is four eggs, but could reach six. If you live in a wooded area (they prefer coniferous and deciduous forests), or near water that has standing dead trees, you could easily have the pileated woodpecker around. We have three that are regulars on our property. Both male and female will work creating the new nest, and both parents incubate the eggs during the day and the male incubates the eggs at night. When hatched the young are naked and helpless so each parent takes part in the feeding, and I’ve watched as they tirelessly go back and forth all day long filling those hungry mouths. The young birds will depend on their parents through the summer and learn the skills needed to acquire their own food. By fall they will leave the parents altogether and wander until spring when they will build their own nests and establish their own territories.

Previously published in the New Marlborough 5 Village News, April 2007
Photo One: source unknown, taken from the internet;
Photo Two: originally posted to Flickr as Pileated Woodpecker in a Tree;
Photo Three: Juan A. Pons

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