What Is This Large Crow-Sized Black Bird with the Bright Red Crest?

I’ve seen Pileated Woodpeckers off and on all year. There was a pair at the Rattray that decided to tear apart some logs on the ground right in front of me…in the deep shade. There was a female there on another visit who worked steadily on a dead Ash tree trunk…on the opposite side of the trunk to that facing the path and me. A duo of youngsters landed near me while I was watching a Broad-winged Hawk in eastern Ontario this summer and one perched in silhouette for a minute before they moved on calling…down into a private home’s yard. I greatly enjoyed all of these sightings but I always regretted the lack of a decent  photo or two. So yesterday, when a Pileated put in a brief appearance overhead in a tree along the river road path at Riverwood Conservancy, I took a few proof photos but fully expected it to move off away from the paths and therefore out of camera sight.

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Over Right Shoulder Bill Open on NaturalCrooksDotCom

To my surprise, and great pleasure, this male decided to humour me. Instead of moving inland, it moved and stayed on one of a group of 6 trees fairly close to the path leading up towards the main boardwalks. It was hunting and it explored a few dead and dying Ash trees, a willow and a Manitoba Maple while I watched.

Is This a Male or a Female Pileated Woodpecker?

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Open Bill Closeup on NaturalCrooksDotCom

At first I thought this was a female Pileated. Unlike many woodpeckers, both males and females have the bright red crest. The males, though, have a red “mustache” line coming back from their bill along the side of their head. On the females, this line is black. Because of the backlit conditions when I first saw this bird, the ‘stache looked black. Later checking, though showed it was red.

I could have looked at the forehead over the eyes, too. On the male, it’s red. On the female, it’s grey. I didn’t know that at the time, though.

The Emerald Ash Borer Brings a Bonanza of Dead and Dying Trees to the Forest

Three, well, five actually, of the trees this bird worked on while I watched at the two locations were dead or dying Ash trees. It had an interesting technique. The Pileated would stay still, head cocked slightly, bill open. Then it would move and pry and flip off a piece of bark, or drill an extremely short hole into the tree trunk.

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Bark and Holes on NaturalCrooksDotCom

For those of you familiar with the huge rectangular gouges a Pileated can make if it really wants to get into a tree, this delicate approach might be surprising.

From time to time, it switched trees. Only when it flew did the startlingly large patches of white on the underside of the wings and the small but noticeable patches of white on the top of the wings show.

What’s In This Knothole?

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Knot Hole Out on NaturalCrooksDotCom

He also spent a long time doing something to this knothole. For several minutes, the bird stuck its head deep into the hole, then withdrew it and swallowed, only to repeat the action. I’m not sure if it was eating something from inside, or drinking rainwater collected in the upwards tilting hole. It certainly seemed to find that whichever it was satisfied it.

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Knot Hole In on NaturalCrooksDotCom

While the Pileated was working away, it occasionally called but just a quiet mutter. I’m pretty sure I heard a reply from uphill but I’m not positive. For sure, I did hear the Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the area. One even flew by briefly but did not seem bothered to have this much larger bird in its territory. I suspect the feeding patterns of the two sizes of woodpeckers differ enough that they don’t compete.

Photo of Pileated Woodpecker Tongue on NaturalCrooksDotCom
I believe this is its tongue sticking out but I’m not 100% sure.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen or heard Pileateds at Riverwood but it was the longest time I’ve got to watch one, undisturbed, as it worked. In fact, it kept foraging despite a steady stream of dogs, joggers, bicycles, and even on one occasion a person carrying a radio blaring dance music passing very nearby on the path. So I hope I’ll get another good look at one in the future: they are very interesting birds and impressive to watch at work.

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Have you seen any Pileated Woodpeckers this year? Please share your sighting with a comment.

2 thoughts on “What Is This Large Crow-Sized Black Bird with the Bright Red Crest?

  1. Great pictures, Bet! This has been a great year for the elusive Pileated Woodpecker in Riverwood. So many sightings. Pity some of my bird watching friends had never had the good fortune to spot one in their lives. I for one had seen it a couple of times in Riverwood, only to let it slip by when I went for my binoculars.

    • Yes, for such a large bird they are surprisingly good at keeping out of sight. I hope your friends will get to see one this winter when they’re a bit more visible. With the Ash trees dying I think we’re seeing an increase in numbers that may help.
      Thanks for sharing your experience!

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