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Pileated Woodpeckers.  Photo by Wendell Long.

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- by J. Pillo
Pileated Woodpecker Family.  Photo by Wendell Long.
Pileated Woodpecker family photo by Wendell Long.

The natural land cover for northeastern Connecticut is mixed deciduous and conifer forests.  The make up these tree stands has been altered by a variety of factors.  Disease has eliminated the mature American Chestnut tree.  Introduced aggressive species such as the Norway Maple and Winged Euonymus (a shrub also known as “Burning Bush") are crowding out some native species that are unable to compete.  Still, some native biodiversity perseveres.  It is regaining ground lost to the deforestation of the “great timber harvest” of a century ago that resulted from attempts to farm our rocky, hilly and rugged terrain.  Less suitable farmland was abandoned when European immigrants migrated west, and natural succession has reclaimed those lands.  With the return of maturing forests came the return of many forest dwelling species that had almost been eliminated. It may be hard to imagine, but in 1900, sighting a deer in Connecticut was front page news.  That is because the total state population for deer at that time was about 12 individuals, according to Dale May, DEP Wildlife Division Director. 

One forest inhabitant I enjoy observing is the Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, which was the inspiration for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker.  It is the largest woodpecker species in North America and an important inhabitant of the local forests.  The male measures 16-19" from tail to head (about the same size as a crow) and has a flaming red crest.  The female has a blackish forehead, and lacks the red mustache below the eyes that is present on the male.  Both birds have a mostly black body, with a white stripe running down the side of their neck.

Their preferred habitat is open pine forests with large, widely-spaced older trees.  The presence of large, dead trees is key, since, like other woodpeckers, it feeds mostly on insects.  It favors streamside forests.  One of its favorite foods is carpenter ants.  It also feeds on some fruits and nuts. In flight, the white underside of the wing is visible from beneath.  Mostly flight is level and direct, but like other woodpeckers, they can appear to undulate as they flap their wings to get aloft, and then glide, which causes the bird to dip.  This pattern is repeated.  I one time had a back yard experience out where I stood up from weeding the garden just as a Pileated woodpecker was dipping towards my head.  It was a near miss, and it took me a moment to intellectualize that it wasn’t a Pterodactyl.

Territory size is determined by the availability of suitable large nesting/roosting trees, and may be as large as 150 or 200 acres per nesting pair, with the availability of suitable large nesting and roosting trees.  Pileated woodpeckers use their large, heavy bill to build nesting cavities.  The entrance holes are usually oval or almost rectangular in shape and on the ground beneath a fresh opening is a pile of diggings.  Usually a hollow or rotting tree is the chosen nest site rather than one with a solid interior.  A nesting cavity is typically used for only one season, and several cavities are excavated each year, some just for roosting purposes.  Abandoned nest sites provide homes to other cavity nesting species, so in a way, the Pileated Woodpecker is in the woodland home construction business.  The female normally lays four eggs per season and the young stay with the parents all summer.

Dead trees, also known as snags, are a most important part of their habitat requirement.  Unless there is a danger to life or property, please consider leaving dead trees in the woods to allow birds like the Pileated Woodpecker and other cavity nesters to continue to breed in our area.

Originally published in The New Roxbury Land Trust newsletter. Jean Pillo is a member of The New Roxbury Land Trust and the Woodstock Conservation Commission.  She is also a Master Wildlife Conservationist.

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Last updated October 25, 2016

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