For the Birds: Which bird is your Christmas bird?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Male Pileated Woodpecker
Photo by Lyn Topinka
By Christine Southwick

A Christmas Bird should be something special and distinct, or have bright Christmas colors.

For many people, the Northern Cardinal epitomizes Christmas. Not for me. Northern Cardinals are not found in Washington. I want a local bird for my Christmas Bird.

Dark-eyed Juncos, called Snowbirds in colder areas, seem too staid for my tastes, although the white flash of their tails as they dart away is pleasing to my eyes. Wintering Fox Sparrows and Varied Thrushes are strong contenders. Chickadees, with their cute up-side down antics, winning stares, and “deedeedees saying, “I see you”, are on my list, but become runners-up when compared to the elegant Pileated Woodpecker.

Female Pileated Woodpecker on snag
Photo by Forrest Gamble

A local resident, the Pileated Woodpecker is about the size of a crow, and one of the largest and most striking forest birds in North America. The bright red moustachial stripe indicates a male; the females have a black stripe there.

These woodpeckers make unique rectangular holes in dead or partially-dead trees, snags, and fallen logs searching for carpenter ants and other tasty bugs. They will forage, roost,  and often nest in stands of mature forest which have larger snags and older dying trees. Their old nest holes provide critical shelter for owls, ducks, bats, swifts, and small woodland mammals.

Unlike other local woodpeckers, the sound of their loud drumming is irregular, and often low to the ground. A breeding pair in my neighborhood uses a specific telephone pole each year to call to each other, and when the juveniles start flying around, to call them back home. Somehow that seems to be more effective than their loud rolling calls.

Male Pileated Woodpecker
Photo by Craig Kerns

With pileated-friendly surrounding habitat, these red-topped birds will come to bird feeders, especially suet, and will readily drink at bird baths. If you are lucky enough to have breeding Pileated Woodpeckers in your area, you might get to see the punk-orange-topped youngsters being taught to come to your suet.

Even though Pileated Woodpeckers are pretty adaptable, their habitat is dwindling so fast that the species is currently on the watch-list for threatened bird species.

Their preferred housing is hard to find. So, next time you think about cutting down dead or dying trees, leave them, or if you feel too unsafe, create 20 foot snags. You will be rewarded with woodpeckers, nuthatches, sapsuckers and other cavity dwelling birds.


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