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Wild Thing: Knock, Knock!

The striking pileated woodpecker drums loudly while searching for insects.

By Cliff Shackelford

“Good-god!” There’s a good reason that the pileated woodpecker has this unusual nickname. “Good-god!” is what many observers exclaim the first time they see this large, striking bird with stark black-and-white plumage accentuated by splashes of red on its head.

That’s certainly the way I felt as a 9-year-old, staring in wonder at a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at our family farm in Cherokee County. I couldn’t believe a bird could be that large, and I was hooked on bird watching from that day forward.

Old-timers once called this bird “Indian hen.” The first part of that name refers to the Native American tradition of drumming and the bird’s ability to drum loudly. “Hen” refers to one of the bird’s vocalizations, usually heard when the woodpecker is annoyed, which sounds like a chicken cluck-cluck-clucking up in a tree.

Sometimes confused with the larger ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), a species with few credible sightings in the past century, the pileated woodpecker is fairly widespread in forested parts of the eastern third of Texas. One sign of its presence is a large oval or rectangular carving into dead or dying wood, created as it searches for insects, mainly carpenter ants, nesting deep inside the tree. Woodpeckers don’t kill trees, as the old wives’ tale says — they are simply hungry for the ants, beetles and other insects involved in the decay process of dead or dying tree limbs.

If you want to observe pileated woodpeckers, there are several state parks or wildlife management areas where they can sometimes be spotted. Be prepared for the excitement of a “Good-god!” moment of your own.

 

Related stories

Red-Cockaded Stranger

Wild Thing: Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher

Wild Thing: Crested Caracara


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