Until recently I’d never seen a pileated woodpecker, despite regularly willing one to appear and repeatedly coming across evidence of their existence – huge rectangular holes carved into trees are a tell-tale sign. In late 2013 at Duke Farms in New Jersey I finally achieved my first pileated sighting and was able to watch it for much longer than I expected, fully able to appreciate its pterodactyl-esque appearance. That sighting was actually part of a glorious quartet of events all happening in unison – we had the pileated woodpecker in front of us, great horned owls hooting in the background, and a bald eagle circling the fields beside us which in turn scattered a flock of geese that had sat down for the night into giving us a noisy fly-by. That short walk was very memorable and a great advert for Duke Farms, if you’ve never been we highly recommend it!
I’ve now smashed my pileated woodpecker record though with two sightings in the space of one week. The first was in the woods at Closter Nature Center where again we had an excellent view – it helped that we were using the huge root systems of two fallen trees as a natural hide. The second was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where we just spent a long weekend. As you’ll see from the photographs we had an unobstructed eye-level view of this stunning bird. We were actually sat in the car at the time, situated in a parking lot behind a restaurant. The woodpecker swooped down out of nowhere to land low on a small tree, before dropping to the ground, hopping around for a while, and then jumping up to the trunk of another small tree.
The pileated woodpecker looks like an exotic bird from hundreds of years ago that you’d expect to now be sadly extinct. The good news is that they’re thriving and are actually pretty brave as woodpeckers go. The red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers that come to our feeders in New Jersey (and the great spotted woodpeckers that visit our garden in England) are all very skittish, fleeing the moment they become aware of us. From my few experiences though the pileated is much more tolerant of humans – maybe they’re aware of the power of their slightly terrifying appearance! So if you haven’t seen a pileated woodpecker yet you needn’t worry that you’re only going to get the briefest of glimpses – if there’s one in your immediate vicinity you’ll likely be able to enjoy a decent period of observation, and at about the size of a crow or small hawk you certainly can’t miss them.
The video below of a pileated woodpecker at a suet feeder is by Hannah Walker – it’ll probably make you jump at 0:15 unless you have your volume low.