Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Final Four: My Top Ten Birds of 2021: Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker close-up

I recently created a Top Ten list of my very favorite birds of all time. The Black-capped Chickadee is of course #1. The Blue Jay is tied for #2 with another spectacular crested bird, the Pileated Woodpecker. My lifer Pileated was wonderfully memorable and well worth waiting for—I didn’t see it until I’d been birding for over a year. 

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
I treasure this photo Russ took with his macro-lens. My lifer is dead center, at the very bottom of a birch snag.

Every time I saw one after that, something about it set my heart a’thumpin’. For a couple of decades, I might have assumed it was because Pileateds were so few and far between, but now they’re an everyday bird in my yard, and yet I’m more fond of them than ever. The people who coined the expressions “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “familiarity breeds contempt” were clearly not living in the presence of this spectacular bird.

Pileated Woodpecker

Seeing at least one Pileated Woodpecker almost every day this year in my own backyard has been wonderful, but I’m not sure simply seeing them so often would have been enough to put them at the top of my 2021 list. The first time Pileated Woodpeckers made the Top Ten for the year, after my lifer, was in 1998 when I was a licensed rehabber and took care of an amazing fledgling for a few weeks. My children Katie and Tom helped me hack him out near the Boundary Waters.  



Tom and Gepetto

In 2004, a Pileated named Jeepers made the grade. He was the first Pileated ever to visit my window feeder—just a tiny suet basket held to the window with suction cups. That was the year a Rufous Hummingbird showed up in November. During a December blizzard, when I kept the window open for the tiny hummingbird to feed indoors if it wanted, Jeepers flew to my box elder just a few feet from the open window, giving me my best photos ever with my little point-and-shoot digital camera.  

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Jeepers was a regular visitor all that winter, long after the hummingbird flew on, and after that, Pileateds showed up fairly regularly on Peabody Street, but not with any predictability. Some years one or two showed up almost every day, other years maybe once or twice a month. 

In 2018, Pileateds made the grade because I finally captured a profile photo of a male with his tongue fully extended. It’s one of the best photos I’ve ever taken, so of course that put the Pileated on my Top Ten list for 2018.  

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

This year, the Pileated Woodpecker made my Top Ten list again, standing out specially because I have at least three different individuals appearing, sometimes all three in a single day, and I’ve come to recognize and love one personally. That one is wearing US Fish and Wildlife Service leg band #115423658. I call him BB, which stands for Banded Boy. I’m pretty sure he must have been banded by Frank Nicoletti or one of his sub-permitees, but Frank hasn’t had a chance to check the numbers yet. 

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

BB is recognizable because he is so calm, and very often sticks around for a half hour or longer. Even when my upstairs window is slightly stuck and makes a loud noise when I open it, he hardly ever flies off because of human activity. I can see that band on his leg when his right side is facing me or when I luck into seeing him from exactly the right angle with that banded leg held slightly above the unbanded leg. At best I can only photograph four numbers at a time from the band, but he sticks around long enough, and lets me take enough photos, that I eventually managed to string together the whole 9-digit number. 

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

When I took rapid fire shots while he was sitting in my box elder, he even posed for my first ever Pileated Woodpecker poop shot. I’m bizarrely pleased that the bird in this photo is BB. 

Pileated Woodpecker

For several weeks, whenever I saw a male Pileated in my yard, I assumed it was BB. But then one time when a male Pileated was in the box elder closest to my office window, his right leg fully visible, he clearly was not banded. I've taken a few photos of him, now, too. I call him UB (Unbanded Boy).

Pileated Woodpecker

Since then, I’ve occasionally seen both males at the same time. BB seems to be the dominant one. A couple of weeks ago, both males were sparring in my box elder, and BB outlasted UB. When one male shows up while a female is in my yard, it’s invariably BB.  I call my female UG, for Unbanded Girl,which implies there is just one though I can't know for sure, just as I can't know for sure if there is more than one UB.

The ease of watching BB has delighted a lot more than just me. During the four weeks that a Rufous Hummingbird was visiting my yard, dozens of birders showed up to see and photograph it. And very often while several were gathered right outside my fence waiting for the hummingbird, in flew BB, giving them some of the best photos of a Pileated Woodpecker many of them had ever taken. Talk about a great warmup act before a rarity shows up!

During the time I had the hummingbird, I got into the habit of heading to my office window with my morning coffee about 6:30 each day so I could get an exact time that the hummingbird arrived. The first birds to show up invariably appeared before sunrise. Only twice was it the hummingbird who arrived first—she was visiting two other feeding stations as well. My Black-capped Chickadees arrived first on several occasions, but one of the three Pileated Woodpeckers was first on most of those mornings—usually BB, two or three times UB, and once UG. The first Pileated arrival was usually while it was still dusk, suggesting that that bird had spent the night in a cavity right in my yard or the yard of one of my nearest neighbors.

On Christmas Day, when I was kneading the dough for my dinner rolls at a window facing the backyard, there was BB on the ground near my apple and big spruce trees, working on the tree stump I sit on when photographing birds. He kept working right there the whole 15 minutes as I kneaded. My hands were coated with dough and flour, so I couldn’t take a picture, but afterwards got a couple of photos of his diggings. 

Pileated Diggings

Early the next morning, BB and UG were feeding together in my suet feeder, though I didn’t get a photo of that, either. I'd have to carry my long-lens camera everywhere in the house to get photos of all the interesting Pileated activity I see. 

I don’t know if 2022 will be the year I finally get to see Pileated Woodpeckers nesting in my neighborhood, much less my own backyard, but I’ll sure be searching. I love living on a planet with Pileated Woodpeckers, and am lucky beyond my fondest wishes to share my backyard with them, where I can get to know one of the coolest birds on the planet not just as an interesting species but also as lovely individuals. 

Pileated Woodpecker at my feeder