Pterodactyl in the Backyard! What is a Pileated Woodpecker?

He's not actually a pterodactyl, he just gives that impression to those uninitiated to his size and jack-hammer approach to bug hunting.

"A Prehistoric Bird Tore Up My Tree!!"

That's how I once heard a city-raised-recently-suburbs-expatriated friend describe his first sighting of a pileated woodpecker. “There were chunks of wood flying everywhere – it sounded like a jack-hammer - he pulverized the trunk."

My friend’s pupils dilated to slits as he relived his first (traumatic) morning in the country – well, he thought Morristown, New Jersey (population 18,544), 26 miles from mid-town Manhattan, was "country." He kept shaking his head and mumbling over and over that he didn’t sign up for pterodactyls in the yard. 

Although I sincerely doubted that his new home was the scene of a Jurassic Park type incident, there was something about the look in his eye, a combination of shock, disbelief ... and excitement .... that caught my imagination. I really wanted to see that bird!  A couple of decades later, with years of amateur bird watching – or at least bird noticing - behind me I still didn’t have a Pileated sighting to call my own. Enter the New York State Watchable Wildlife initiative

Walking on the wild side - in Saratoga County, New York

In early spring of this year, I and a group of professional British nature tour operators were invited by the New York State Tourism Board to spend a week getting familiar with the state’s watchable wildlife. Frankly, I was a bit skeptical. I’d already visited many of upstates's larger cities: Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse – loved the quirky special interest museums, the artisanal beers and wines, the nightlife, and the fabulous (reasonably priced) restaurants, but wildlife? I’d thought most non-urban winged and four-legged New York state residents were long relegated to history. I was about to be proven wrong. 

SHNP's Biologist Linda White never missed a beat POINTing OUT EVIDENCE (SCAT) OF SMALL MAMMALS & BIRDS and explaining the park's flora. all the while interspersing her narrative with fascinating stories of the area's revolutionary War role.

And so I found myself on a cold morning in late March following NPS Biologist Linda White down a snow-packed trail through Saratoga National Historic Park with my new UK wildlife travel friends, Gerry Griffiths (Avian Adventures,) Chris Breen (The Nature Travel Collection,) Pam Roper (Unpackaged Travel,) Andy Tucker (Nature Trek,) Edward Hutchings (Nature Travel Network), and Simon Eaves (Spey Side Travel).  

Planning a walk in the woods? Want to experience the natural world in a completely new way? See things you've never noticed before? Maybe have a fast lesson in really responsible viewing? Treat yourself! Go with a nature guide. Most national and state parks are have folks on staff that are happy - very happy - to show you around. That half-frozen pond wasn’t just a pool of water thawing with piles of sticks in the middle; it was a whole beaver community with muskrat interlopers. Those “dents in the snow” were hundreds of tiny tracks: rabbits, voles, wild turkeys, deer, and even a coyote.

Biologist ranger Linda White, and my professional friends, took turns pointing out the first signs of budding spring, the way the snow melted first around tree bases, trickling water breaking through a frozen stream, and the first arriving migratory birds; intrepid little warblers who’d traveled thousands of miles north and still had more to go. We heard them calling out like old friends greeting each other at the airport, we heard the rustling of bushy tailed squirrels and then, echoing through the hard wood forest came the unmistakable racket of a tree truck being decimated. 

The streams were just starting to thaw. We could hear the soft sound of water running under the ice long before we came to a place where it had broken free.

That sound could only be the one bird I longed to see, that “prehistoric” (or should I say pre-hysteric) impersonator, the pileated woodpecker.  Woodpeckers have fascinated me forever (how can these birds continually hit their heads against a solid wood tree trunk and still be rational enough to fly and raise young?) We’d seen evidence of the pileated’s presence all over the park, huge oval shaped holes blasted out of solid trunks, the excavation so deep, Jerry explained, that sometimes they do cause the tree to fall. Many of these holes would later become home to other species including owls, swifts, ducks and bats.  And now that sound! I began to get really excited. He’s close! 

Sometimes "Close" is All You Get 

Gerry griffith (Avian Adventures) spotted this enormous Pileated Woodpecker hole. he told me that smaller birds and mammals use the abandoned excavations for their own nests.

Anyway, sometimes with wildlife, “close” is all you get. I didn’t see the woodpecker himself that day, but his impressive work and unholy pounding echoing through the woods certainly solidified his awesome cousin-of-flying-dinosaur reputation – at least in my mind.  And there’s always next time! 

My friend, veterinarian Dr. Gordon Ellmers, understanding my obsession with these elusive giants, sent me some of his recent photos. Note: although he gives a huge impression, the pileated woodpecker is really only about the size of a crow – big enough I'd say, but admittedly not quite a pterodactyl. 

Conservation note: Pileated woodpeckers declined sharply in the 19th century due to extensive harvesting of mature forests. They need the larger, older trees for food and nesting.  As forests are now rebounding so is the pileated woodpecker. He is the second largest of all the woodpecker species after the ivory billed, now thought to be extinct. 

Pileated Woodpecker Stats:
Height: 15.7 – 19.3 in  / 40 - 49 cm
Wingspan: 26 – 29.5 in  / 66 – 75 cm
Range: Entire eastern United States and across Canada to the pacific northwest and south again in a slim line down the US west coast ending halfway down the California coast. 
Where to see them in New York State: 
Saratoga Historical National Park, Stillwater, Saratoga County, New York
Great Swamp Conservancy, Canastota, Madison County, New York 

And of course - keep an eye out in your own suburban back yard! 

exploring New York State's wildlife with experts Chris Breen of The Nature Travel Collection and Gerry Griffith of Avian Adventures meant I experienced nature in a whole new way, they were fast to share details i would have missed, share stories - and as you can see by their smiles - many laughs.

My friend, veterinarian and avian photographer, Dr. Gordon Ellmer's, sent me photos of the Pileated woodpeckers that I had not managed to see on our trip. This one was taken in a few weeks later in early may. the red cheek stripes says he's a male.

This is a female Pileated Woodpecker, Note the grey stripe, not red, on her cheek.

Special Thanks:

For their generous sharing of time, expertise, enthusiasm and images. 
Dr. Gordon Ellmers  
Linda White,  Saratoga Historical National Park    Follow SNHP on FaceBook
Gerry Griffiths of Avian Adventures      Chris Breen of Nature Travel Collection 
And Special Thanks to  Markly Wilson  and the New York Watchable Wildlife Initiative
for introducing this city girl to the real New York State.  @I_Love_NY


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