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Pileated Woodpeckers Do Not Visit Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

While visiting my uncle in New Hampshire I saw a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods behind his house. I was stunned by its enormous size. I have two questions: Do we ever see Pileated Woodpeckers on Cape Cod? Also, what is the correct pronunciation of this bird’s name?

– Jen, Yarmouth, MA


No you didn’t, Jen,

You did not just ask me how to pronounce a contentious word. I’m the last guy you want telling you how to say anything. Did you forget I’m from Massachusetts, too? I haven’t pronounced a word correctly – ever. Even foreign people make fun of my English. You might be better off asking for help from someone like Elmer Fudd, except I’m not sure how much Elmer knows about birds. He tends to focus on wabbits.

Arguments over bird name pronunciation have gone on for years. For example, more time has been spent discussing how to say “plover” than has been spent keeping them from being squashed by ORVs. (FYI: Plover rhymes with “lover”…although many Americans want plover to sound like “rover,” as if they are talking about a dog.) When it comes to saying pileated, most of us, once again, go along with the crowd and say “pill-ee-ated.” However, the preferred way to say this word is “pie-lee–ated.” Why pie-lee-ated? It’s because of the crazy bright red cap on the bird’s head. The word “pileus” (pronounced “pie-lee-us”) is another word for cap, particularly mushroom cap. Hence, the name pie-lee-ated woodpecker. Sorry all you pill-ee-ated and pl?-ver people. It’s just the way it is.

I understand why the Pileated Woodpecker caught your eye; it is easily the biggest woodpecker in North America, and one of the largest in the world. About the size of a crow, it would take ten Downy Woodpeckers to equal the weight of a single pileated. Not only is this woodpecker huge, it is totally distinctive. With its black body, white neck stripes and flaming red cap (aka, pileus), it looks like nothing else you’ll ever see in the forest. If you are a birder and misidentify a Pileated Woodpecker, you need to trade your binoculars in for a service dog.

Do we get Pileated Woodpeckers on Cape Cod? Nope. A woodpecker of this size needs large trees, and lots of them. The birds can’t make a living on the skinny, anorexic things that pass for trees around here. In fact, not too long ago (well, about a hundred years ago, which suddenly doesn’t seem that long ago to me), Pileated Woodpeckers were rare in Massachusetts. The woodpeckers were forced out when early Americans cut down all the trees for lumber to make homes, barns and George Washington’s teeth. But over the years the trees have returned and so have the big woodpeckers. Today, the Massachusetts population of Pileated Wood is higher than it has been in centuries, and it’s increasing. That’s great news for bird watchers, but not so great if you happen to like carpenter ants. I’ll explain.

The diverse diet of a Pileated Woodpecker consists of fruit, nuts, termites and wood-boring beetles, but over half of what they eat are carpenter ants. When they aren’t tunneling into my house, carpenter ants typically build their nests inside dead and rotting trees. Hidden deep within the tree the ants are safe from most predators, but not from the powerful Pileated Woodpeckers. Once a nest is detected, the birds set to work hammering and shredding the tree with their jackhammer-like beak, until the ants are found. Sometimes the hammering is so intense the tree will actually split in half. Really. A few tree huggers might complain that woodpeckers are damaging trees, but the birds usually focus on dead, rotting and ant-filled trees. Ant-less trees have nothing to fear.

There is an easy way to know if Pileated Woodpeckers are in your area. Look for their telltale large, rectangular-shaped foraging holes. A tree, if it doesn’t fall down, may have several of these massive rectangles in it. The birds’ nesting holes, on the other hand, are round and very deep. These holes are not only important to the woodpeckers, but other creatures as well. Once the birds have moved out, the old holes are quickly taken over by owls, wood ducks and the super cute, and probably fresh smelling, pine martins.

For many years the bulk of the Massachusetts population of Pileated Woodpeckers was confined to the western part of the state. But according to the most recent breeding bird survey, the number of these handsome woodpeckers is growing rapidly, and moving east. Yet, at this point, Jen, there are no signs they are coming to Cape Cod, but perhaps they’ll arrive someday. And when that happens, you can bet I’ll be the first one to sell a birdfeeder that holds carpenter ants. One more note on saying Pileated. Even though pill-ee-ated (and pl?-ver) isn’t the preferred pronunciation, it is, according to my iPhone’s dictionary app, acceptable. So say it whatever way is the most comfortable for you. But there is one bird name I wish folks would get right. It’s the Common Grackle. There is no such bird as a “crackle,” so please stop a saying it. It is grackle, with a “G.” I don’t know who started the crackle thing, but you can be sure it wasn’t Elmer Fudd. Even though he calls them “gwackles,” it’s close enough for me.