Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Pileated Woodpecker: Bird of the Year

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

Every year, the American Birding Association chooses a Bird of the Year. As they explain: 

We aren’t seeking the rarest, most endangered, or most sought-after species, nor do we seek overexposed “greeting card” birds. We aim to pick species that are charismatic and accessible enough to be spark birds, but that also remain favorites for those who have been into birding for years. On top of that, we want a conservation story to tell. And we strive to feature a variety of artists and a variety of visions and styles.

Their announcement last December, naming the Pileated Woodpecker the Bird of the Year for 2021, was especially wonderful for me, because the Pileated is one of my personal Top Ten Favorite Birds. Of course I had to purchase a t-shirt...

and also the gorgeous ABA Bird-of-the-Year poster autographed by the artist, Juan Travieso. 

And my dear friend Steve McInnis sent me the coolest can of beer from Dogfish Head, an independent craft brewery in Delaware near ABA headquarters that made a limited edition batch of beer in honor of ABA’s bird of the year. It’s whimsically called Binoculager. The original artwork of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers on the can is astonishingly cool. 

Why am I so in love with Pileated Woodpeckers? Before I even set out on my first outing as a birder, on March 2, 1975, I was smitten with the Pileated illustrations in my field guides. I didn’t see one for over a year, but on the evening of June 5, 1976, Russ and I saw one at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan—it flew past close enough that I felt the wind from its wings on my face, and alighted close enough that Russ managed to get a photo with his macro lens. The bird is very tiny in the middle of the photo, but I was nevertheless thrilled.  

Before Russ and I moved to Duluth, it was a red-letter day whenever I managed to see one, and even up here they were few and far between for more than two decades. But in 1998, I got to rehab a recently fledged Pileated for three weeks—that was truly one of the most wonderful experiences I had as a rehabber. Gepetto liked to cling to my arm with his face next to mine. Very often he’d put his beak right next to my ear and insert his long, long tongue into all the folds of my ear. How could anyone not love a bird who did that?  

GepettoTomLaura.jpg

GepettoKatie.jpg

GepettoTom3.jpg

I got my first photos of a backyard Pileated in December 2004, and that one individual wasn’t all that regular in my backyard. 

Pileated Woodpecker

Now I see them most days, and have managed to get a lot of good photos and videos. Right now, one banded male has been showing up daily for a few weeks. He was almost certainly banded up at Hawk Ridge, but I’m trying to tease out the band numbers to confirm that. The USGS band is on his right leg, and it’s very tricky to see at all, much less to read the numbers—when woodpeckers perch on vertical structures, they hold those numbers literally close to the chest. But on November 3, I got a photo clearly showing the digits 115. 

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

Then this Saturday, the 13th, I got more photos of the band with the seam visible, showing that 115 (and possibly 1154) is at the start of the band number, which ends with 8.  

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

It snowed Saturday night, and on November 14, I got a nice clear photo of the band, but it was covered with snow!! Apparently their legs really are cold, and their feathers really do prevent much heat from escaping their warm bodies. 

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

On November 15, I got a photo that shows the digits 365. 

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

USGS bands have nine digits, so at this rate I should have the whole number within a few weeks, assuming this bird keeps coming. 

As much as I love birds, and as much as I have some special favorites, only a very few get my heart racing just to see them. Of the 11 species they’ve selected as Bird of the Year so far, four of them fit the bill—Evening Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk, "BOY"s from 2012 and 2013, are special favorites not only for lots of wonderful outdoor experiences but also because I spent a lot of time rehabbing individuals. I had one dear nighthawk named Fred for many years as a licensed education bird. Right now my heart stops every time one particular Rufous Hummingbird shows up at my feeder. That tiny dynamo and one that showed up in November 2004 stuck around for many days—it feels like a cosmic blessing that they chose my neighborhood to visit along their arduous migration. That means the 2014 Bird of the Year also is one of my very favorites. 

But the Pileated Woodpecker must be embedded even deeper in my heart, because I’m going to have a very hard time letting go of this year’s bird, and will keep my Bird of the Year poster and beer can displayed in their place of honor in my home office permanently. There’s still over a month before the 2022 Bird of the Year is announced, and a month and a half before the Pileated’s reign ends. But it will continue reigning in my heart as one of my dearest birds for the rest of my life. 

Pileated Woodpecker


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