The Wild Woodworker

The woods are coming back to life now as spring is leafing its way into Upstate New York. There is one tree that stands over a crooked trail in the woods that I own that has a huge wound in its side – a large rectangular hollow that has recently been chiseled out about twenty feet in the air. Since my property is isolated and private, I wonder how this happened. With some investigation, I am able to discover the trespassing woodworker on my property and find that it is one I welcome with relish.

Every spring, when I begin seeing the lines being tapped into the area maples, the striking pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) returns to my woods. While these large birds do reside in the Finger Lakes Region throughout the winter, I don't see them on my property until the warmer months when the snow is mostly gone and the insect life begins to buzz.

Nearly the size of an American crow, pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in the United States. Both males and females have a red crest, while the male is characterized with an additional red line drawn from the bill to the throat. They forage on wood-boring insects, such as carpenter ants and beetle larvae, but will also eat fruits, nuts, and berries.

Pairs form long-term monogamous bonds, with the males excavating nests in the cavities of large, dead trees, usually with multiple, ovalate entrances. As such, I know by the diameter of my tree (3.5' at 5' high) and the rectangular shape of the artwork left behind that my pileated woodpecker was merely feasting and not building a home.

While both sexes will defend their territory year-round against intruders, territorial aggression during the winter is more strongly focused on the nucleus and floaters are occasionally tolerated on the perimeter. Since I have never caught my resident pileated woodpeckers here in the depths of the winter, this information leaves me concluding that my property is possibly the out-skirts of the pair's territory. Once weather begins to turn and the maple trees begin to waken from their deep winter slumber, the pair begins to make daily forays into my woods again.

Will my wounded maple tree die from the woodpeckers tapping into it? It seems to be doing well so far, but following the rhythms of nature, I know all the trees in my woods will eventually fall. In the meantime, I don't mind sharing my woods with the spectacular pileated woodpeckers. These woodworkers are welcome on my property any time.

Story and tree photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler

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