WC and Mrs. WC were hiking in Ponderosa State Park recently. The park is on a peninsula that protrudes into Payette Lake, where Pileated Woodpeckers are as common as alliteration.
Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest North American woodpecker,1 and the model for Woody Woodpecker.2 And they are an environment-altering force of nature. When they find a termite colony in a tree, well, a pack of Cub Scouts with hatchets can’t do as much damage to that tree.
That gouge is more than four feet long, six inches deep in places and 20 inches wide. The good news is, the termites are all gone.
Pileateds are a keystone species. They are big birds and dig big cavities in trees. Those cavities are used by other species, ranging from owls and wood ducks to weasels and raccoons. They keep the forest healthy by holding down bark-piercing bugs. But Pileateds need old growth forests to survive. Those big nesting cavities require big trees, and cutting old growth forests denies the birds suitable nesting habitat. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ponderosa State Park hosts so many Pileateds; it;s old growth forest, protested since 1905, and has never been cut.
If you are in northern old growth forests, or east of the Mississippi in big trees, away from people, and hear what sounds like a hatchet wielded by a frenzied man with an insane laugh, it just might be a Pileated Woodpecker.