Smoky Mountain Pileated Woodpeckers

Smoky mountain pileated woodpeckers bring color and music to the mountains!
Smoky mountain pileated woodpeckers bring color and music to the mountains!

Smoky Mountain Pileated Woodpeckers, America’s largest woodpecker, announces its arrival with a drum solo.

The Pileated Woodpecker’s drumming echoes across the Smokies and indeed the entire U.S. This largest woodpecker found in North America measures in at some 16-19 inches in length and features an impressive bill that is the same length as its head.  

Sometimes referred to as “The Lord God Bird” (along with its cousin, the elusive Ivory Billed Woodpecker,) the beautiful Pileated Woodpeckers are easily identified. Their bright red head, black throat, with a white stripe on the side extending from the base of the bill to the upper shoulder area, contrasts vividly with a midnight-black body, and, when in flight, it’s under wing shows predominately white. The bird’s impressively sturdy bill is very thick and silvery gray in color. Adult males sport a scarlet forehead while the female species feature black foreheads.

Their unmistakable call – a harsh sounding “kuk-kuk-kuk” is remarkably different from other species as is the loud thudding sound made by the birds as they drum their bills on older trees thus claiming their territory.

Their rock hard bills are ideally suited to provide a diet of primarily carpenter ants. The birds use their sharp bills to strip small portions of bark from trees in search of ant colonies, and then utilize their long, barbed tongues to drag out the food. The birds also feast of fruit and nuts and have been known to visit backyard birdfeeders for a snack of seeds and suet.

The birds typically nest in dead trees that contain the tunnels of carpenter ants. Such trees are usually located in a mature or old stand of deciduous or evergreen trees, but they may also be found in urban locations. Pileated Woodpeckers have excavation down to an art, using their long necks to pull back from the tree and, engaging their heavy feet for leverage to deliver powerful strikes with their heavy bills. These holes, which can range from 10-24 inches deep, are shaped into an oblong rather the circular design of most woodpecker holes and these deep holes often pose a problem when the birds opt to drill into older telephone and power poles causing them to weaken, and in some cases, break. 

The males begin the nest excavation and the female adds finishing touches by pecking away at the inside, pitching some chips back into the hole to act as a liner for the nest. The entire building process can take anywhere from 3-6 weeks, but in spite of the work involved in construction; nests are rarely reused in later years. 

Juvenile smoky mountain pileated woodpeckers keep their parents busy.
Juvenile smoky mountain pileated woodpeckers keep their parents busy.

Females lay between 2-4 eggs and both parents share incubation responsibilities during daytime but it is the male who draws the night shift to keep the eggs warm. Eggs hatch in a bit more than 2 weeks and remain with their parents for about a month. 

Woodpeckers, which command a wide range of territory, are monogamous and only the death of a mate provides a chance for another bird to encroach if the surviving bird accepts a new mate.

The massive early clearing of eastern forests and loss of natural habitat once caused a great decline in the number of Pileated Woodpeckers, but they rebounded in the mid 20th century and today are fairly common with a marked increase in population that steadily began in 1996, according the North American Bird survey. It is estimated that the global population now exceeds 1.9 million with some 67 percent of them in the U.S, and 33 percent in Canada.

Egg facts

Clutch Size: 3-5 eggs

Number of Broods: 1 brood

Incubation Period: 15-18 days

Nestling Period: 24-31 days

Condition at Hatching: Naked and Helpless

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