Even the woodpecker owes its success to the fact that he used his head.
—Author Unknown

Continuing with the theme of occasional “Naturally Speaking” accounts of species you can encounter on the West Island of Montreal I am going to introduce a another bird. Botanists and entomologist friends of mine need not fret – there will be plenty of your favourites in the future but given that it’s still snowy, cold and wintery outside be assured that I’ll get around to you later as your preferred lifeforms are not all that active right now.

Not too long after we first came to Canada (1998) and were muddling our way through a host of strange, to us, species we took part in our first Christmas Bird Count with a some seasoned locals. We were walking a trail in a forested area south of Hudson when a hulking great “Pterodactyl” flew lazily across the gap between trees. A first close encounter with the monster Pileated Woodpecker and seriously, Pterodactyl was my brains first instant ID before common sense kicked in.

In fact these beautiful birds are fairly common here; we have one or more that quite regularly visit our garden these days, attracted by a couple of elderly and insect-rich trees but best of all attracted by peanuts and suet on our feeders. The imminent demise of most ash trees in this part of the world due to Emerald Ash Borer is a contributory factor to their population size as well.

Every now and again I share photographs of these birds on our town Facebook group and there is no doubt at all that they gather the most likes and interest in the community. You might expect rare birds or more colourful ones would win the popularity stakes, but consistently it’s the Pileated Woodpecker.

So …

The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

These birds are at least as large as a Crow and have a black body with white stripes down the neck. The head bears a bright-red crest. Males differ from females in having red “moustache”.

They are forest birds and are to be found wherever there are standing dead trees and felled trunks. They occur in evergreen, deciduous, or mixed forests of all ages and also inhabit wooded suburbs and backyards. They are especially easy to find in the sites such as the Morgan Arboretum or the suburbs of Senneville, Baie-D’Urfé and sometimes Beaconsfield. They chip out characteristically rectangular holes in trees to find insects larvae and ants etc which they winkle out with the tips of their long and flexible tongues. These excavations can be surprisingly deep. They will work trees at all levels and not infrequently will be seen right at the foot of a tree hacking the bark near ground level.

Being so large and active they are not hard to see – finding them is aided by listening for their very loud drumming and sometimes high-pitched, piercing calls. Look for them in wooded areas such as the Morgan Arboretum where there is a good population, but they are to be found in the more wooded suburbs with a small but regular breeding population in Baie-D’Urfé and similar neighbourhoods.

Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker calling in the Morgan Arboretum

They will generally use larger trees for nesting holes. Pairs mate for life and raise one brood each summer. Courtship begins in early spring with head swinging, drumming, wing spreading displays, and crest raising. The nest hole opening averages 9 cm wide, though it can be larger, and up to a couple of feet deep. An average of four eggs are layed and both parents share the incubation. The eggs hatch after 15-28 days – the young are fed regurgitated insects. By 2 to 3 weeks, nestlings “cuk” from within the nest. By 4 weeks, they fledge.

Secondary cavity nesters, like small owls, ducks, bats, and flying squirrels, who do not build their own nests, make use of abandoned cavities excavated by primary cavity nesters such as Pileated Woodpeckers. Not only birds, cavity nesting mammals such as fishers, are dependent on spacious pileated nest holes.

Wikipedia: The English naturalist Mark Catesby described and illustrated the pileated woodpecker in his book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands which was published between 1729 and 1732. Catesby used the English name “The larger red-crested Wood-pecker” and the Latin Picus niger maximus capite rubro. When in 1758 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus updated his Systema Naturae for the tenth edition, he included the pileated woodpecker, coined the binomial name Picus pileatus and cited Catesby’s book. The specific epithet pileatus is a Latin word meaning “-capped”.

BDU Official Bird proposal

At the end of 2020 a citizen proposal was put to the Council of Baie-D’Urfé to have them adopt the Pileated Woodpecker as the town’s “official” bird. After all, Canada’s official bird is the Gray Jay, Quebec has the Snowy Owl and Montreal chose the American Goldfinch so why not the Pieated Woodpecker for this town as its “brand ambassador” and visible sign of our status as one of the greenest communities in the Montreal region. While not a bird you will see every day, a good number of Pileated Woodpeckers live in town year round. They nest amongst there and raise their young there, they visit gardens and they just cheer people up and bring that wow factor that people respond to. Combine this with the fact that a defining feature of Baie-D’Urfé is its very extensive mature tree cover – a woodpecker is a natural fit. The Council did not reject the idea and will consider it carefully in the spring.

Was Woody Woodpecker a Pileated?

Something we have all wondered from time to time – haven’t we? An authoritative answer to that question can be found in the entertaining NPR article you can access via the following link.



Species Accounts
Richard Gregson
PhD MPhil CBiol FRSB