We hear much of man's efforts to save this or that threatened species of wildlife, but now it is time for man to lift his hat and extend a deep, appreciative bow to the pileated woodpecker, a bird that has set about bravely saving itself from extinction.
About the size of a crow, the pileated, or crested, woodpecker is bigger than any other American woodpecker except the ivorybill. Shy and furtive, it was originally a bird of the deep forest, usually operating high in the leafy canopy where it was seldom seen. The pileated is a mighty woodsman, hacking away at dead and insect-infested trees with its strong bill. Sometimes the chips it sends flying are a couple of inches wide and several inches long.
In the first quarter of this century the pileated woodpecker was declining at an alarming rate. The forests in which it once was at home had dwindled to become second-growth wood lots interspersed with wide fields and pastures. Ornithologists feared that the species would go as its environment continued to shrink. But then the pileated began changing its mode of life to suit the conditions at hand.
Lacking the preferred virgin forest, the bird gradually found that it could get along in second growth. It probably has to work a little harder but it finds ants, beetles and other insects in smaller trees. It also drops down to tear old stumps apart to get at the woodpecker food they contain. It developed the habit of crossing fields and open country to get from one wood lot to another. And as the birds became readjusted their numbers increased and they began showing up in areas they had deserted years before.
In making this adjustment the pileated woodpecker is becoming less shy. The National Audubon Society now gets reports of the birds even coming to feeding stations around dwellings. They have returned to wooded areas like the Palisades Interstate Park at Bear Mountain, N.Y., and in Everglades, Fla. a pair came right into town and built a nest in a palm tree in front of the headquarters of a rod and gun club, an astonishing display of boldness for a pileated.
Despite their large size these striking birds may be around without being noticed. The pileateds are rather silent birds except in the spring when they give voice to a call somewhat like the flicker's but louder and deeper. Their nesting holes are usually made high in dead trees, anywhere from 15 to 70 feet above ground. Their white eggs number three or four and the incubation period is 18 days. The male does most of the work in digging out the nest hole and also does the greater share of incubating the eggs and caring for the young.
Almost everybody is glad to learn that these giants of the woodpecker family are solving their own problems of survival—except the operators of certain light and power companies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There the birds have taken to hacking so many holes in utility poles that hundreds have had to be replaced. The companies have tried everything they could think of to stop the birds but nothing seems to work. Now scientists are conducting a three-year study to learn why the birds do it and what will stop them. Nonetheless, it is good to know that the species is solving its own problems in the face of rough going.