Posted by: Memorizing Nature | September 19, 2010

Construction Site Birds

Their hammering can be heard in the woods, over farm fields, and clear across oceans. I hear them before I see them. Drum roll, please. Here are the Pileated Woodpeckers, skittish, red-crested and big as crows.

"I wonder why they are such obsessive headbangers." (Photo by E. Medline)

They tease out beetle larvae and carpenter ants with their elongated tongues. As they strut to the sky, their stiff tails brace against the trunk to prevent being thrown ass-backwards. Two toes stretch forward and two extend backward for extra steadiness. A second eyelid closes for a split-second just before their reinforced bill slams against wood. Fine feathers protect the nostrils from flying sawdust. The brain is cushioned; no hard hat would be better. This is a construction site, after all, and such birds have evolved built-in protection.

"The drilling means there is life in these otherwise quiet woods." (Photo by E. Medline)

I wonder why they are such obsessive headbangers. Are they angry punks upset that their cousins – the Ivory-billed and the Imperial Woodpeckers – have been forced into hiding (for decades) under threat of extinction? Are they intent on saving trees from what they interpret as pestilence? Or are they somewhat altruistic – digging out rectangular nests that they abandon after the first-year’s broods so that songbirds can move in afterward, rent-free?

"Drum roll, please." (Photo by E. Medline)

There is that sound again. Pileated Woodpeckers are not afraid to make their presence known. The drilling means there is life in these everyday environments, these otherwise quiet woods. As I watch, the two birds flap from tree to tree until they disappear. They look like winged dinosaurs. Their flight recalls a previous time, a former dominance, a wildness not ever recovered.

"Their flight recalls a previous time." (Photo by E. Medline)



  1. This biology-as-poetry blog is unique, visually and literally inspirational. Great work.

  2. I agree that they look like dinosaurs (I posted that about herons recently)- they are amazing birds. The fact that they exist in our neighborhood makes everything more interesting…unless they are knocking on your metal chimney!

  3. What a beautiful post.

  4. I love pileated woodpeckers. Being shy, they’re an uncommon sight at best. And so prehistoric! Nice captures here.

  5. Great description of these birds and their habitat. Wish I could see one – someday!

  6. impressive looking birds, more striking looking than our woodpeckers, though they’re wonderful creatures too (and increasing in number)

  7. I’m jealous of your pictures. Sometimes I dream of pileated woodpeckers, I want to see one so badly.

  8. Ah, they are such wonderful birds! There is a whole clan of them living in the Conservation area where I walk Ruby. A couple of times I have come across one of their wing feathers; always in the same area. I think they have favorite perches where they preen and cackle across the hollows to each other.

    The very distressed noise a red-bellied woodpecker makes when those big pileated ones invade their territories is something to hear.

    Wonderful post.

  9. I love catching sight of these birds in the woods. Everything about them amazes me. Wonderful post!

  10. Very evocative. A great look at one of my long-time favorites.

  11. Wow! Just read your story, Noise in the Cocoon! Loved it! I will be waiting for the follow-up to hear the medical results.

    I must admit, moths are not my favourite.

  12. I enjoyed reading this and seeing your photographs. Once at Great Falls (along the Potomac River in Virginia) I heard the very loud head banging noise but saw no bird. Finally by following the sound and feeling the trees for the vibrations, my friend and I figured out which tree Woody was in and we began tapping at the base of the tree. The banging ceased and he stuck his head out of the hole way at the top and peered around to see who his competitor was. We did it again and again and each time he came to his door to look about. Thanks again for the fun escape.

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