Archived Mountain Voices

Pileated woodpeckers a mainstay in the mountains

The tapping of pileateds ... means attachment to a nest site

and attachment of the members of a pair to each other . . .

When one pair of pileateds is especially excited about

meeting its mate, it bends its head and bill far back,

waving them back and forth in an arc of 45-degrees

as it jerks its whole body in what I call a ‘bill-waving dance.’

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Thus, they keep their pair bonds strong with small ceremonies.

— Lawrence Kilham, “On Watching Birds” (1988)


Here in the Smokies region there are six woodpecker species one can anticipate encountering on a regular basis. Red-headed woodpeckers are sometimes reported, but I have only seen a few in the years that I’ve resided here. My favorite among this tribe is the pileated woodpecker. The common name can be correctly pronounced as either “pi-lee-a-tid” or “pill-ee-a-tid.” “Pileated” indicates the bird has a crest on its head. The word derives from a skullcap (a “pileaus”) worn in ancient Rome. Male and female pileateds can be easily distinguished: males sport red mustaches and full-red crests on their heads, while females display black mustaches and half-red, half-black crests.

Unlike the larger 21-inch-long ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated proved adaptable to environmental changes wrought by man so that it has — after a period of setbacks — become a commonplace feature of both our backcountry and community woodlands. Spotting one of these 19-inch-long crow-sized birds isn’t at all uncommon. When you do flush one, it will sound loud “yucca, yucca, yucca” calls and flash its vivid white under-wing markings.

The mainstays of the big bird’s diet are ants and other wood-boring insects. Matchbook-size chips of bark and wood chiseled from a feeding tree or log are sure signs of its presence. Using its tail for support, the bird can back down a tree as easily as it can climbup a tree.

The species usually mates in February and then spends most of March digging a nest cavity. The rectangular entrance hole (other woodpeckers excavate entrance holes that are more or less round) will be located anywhere from 10 to 75 feet above ground. After the three to five eggs are laid in mid-April, incubation requires about 18 days.

Pileateds will often return to the same nest tree year after year, but a new nesting cavity is usually excavated each season. If you attempt to climb the nest tree and look through the entrance hole at the baby birds, it’s not unlikely that the parents will attack you with their formidable beaks.

A mother pileated has been photographed retrieving her eggs from a nest tree that was blown down. Shortly after the tree fell, she transferred the clutch of three to a new site.

One of the advantages of being a permanent resident rather than a migratory species is that individual birds can keep up with their mates from season to season. A lot of the ritual activity associated with pileateds, especially during the fall season, has to do with maintaining ongoing relationships. The online “Birds of North America” (available by subscription) provides additional background:

“When a mate dies, the surviving bird remains in the territory and seeks a new mate from adjacent areas. Once established, the pair defends the territory by drumming, calling, and chasing off intruders. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers evicted young bluebirds from a nest cavity used by the woodpeckers the previous year and then enlarged the cavity and nested in it.

“Reactions to climbing snakes vary from concern to possible nest abandonment. Based on video camera data at 32 Pileated Woodpecker nests in Arkansas, black rat snakes entered 14 nest cavities. Adults ejected snakes at eight cavities, though the snake returned to 5 cavities. Nestlings fledged from only three of the 14 cavities with rat snake attacks. Adults appeared able to eject snakes that were smaller than 60 inches in length from nest cavities.”

Let’s close with this little poem by Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr., that I happened upon on the I-net:


Pileated Woodpecker …

dressed for his coronation

in ebony cape,

ermine trim,

scarlet-crested crown.

But would royalty be caught

backing down a dead hickory.


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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