Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Pileated woodpecker, bluebirds spotted at feeders

Q: [A] young pileated woodpecker was a frequent visitor with his family late last summer and fall, but now comes occasionally. Regarding the red-bellied, we had a family (and more). A pair remained, and I see them daily. Although we are located in a residential area very close to downtown Brattleboro, we have lots of natural food and dead trees the woodpeckers want and they only visit us for the suet.

— Joyce, Brattleboro, Vt.

A; I know just how skittish the pileated is! When I was maybe 16, I had a suet feeder (suet, wire mesh nailed to a tree trunk) in our back yard in the heart of Pittsfield, Mass., and after I moved to Dalton some years later and was trying to photograph one on a nearly dead tree, it remained on the opposite side of the tree as I walked around the tree trying to snap a picture. No luck, but it was the bird that gave up first and flew off.

Pileated woodpeckers mostly live in mature deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands They are also to a lesser extent found in younger forests that have scattered, large, dead trees and can also be found in suburban areas with large trees and even better with patches of woodland not far away. As far as attracting the pileated to bird feeders, I don't know of pileated woodpeckers at a feeder for no other reason than suet or peanut butter. I have read that suet with fruit or berries will interest them also. To make the feeder even more irresistible, look for suet mixed with nuts, berries and fruit. You can also smear peanut butter directly onto vertical tree trunks or drill 1- to 1 1/2-inch holes in a 12- by 3-inch diameter branch and hang from a mature tree. Perhaps other readers may know more about their preferences. In the wild, I have seen them feeding on wild grapes in the autumn and have long thought of putting out blue (Concord) grapes, but have no large deciduous trees in our yard now.

The pileated always reminds me of Woody Woodpecker of cartoon fame, although the real thing is even noisier than that the on-screen version and is a good (crow) size bird at 16 to 19 inches tall with a wingspan of 29 inches. They weigh in around 10 ounces, or as much as 10 downy woodpeckers.

These, like other woodpeckers, are primarily insect eaters, with the pileated preferring carpenter ants. The large, often elongated up-and-down holes gouged in dead wood are a sure sign of pileated probing in search of delectable insects. Fresher holes often have a pile of wood chips on the ground below. Deeper holes may also be indicative of a nest within.

One of the questions I have received more often through the years is how do you pronounce pileated? Whichever you choose. Pie or pill, either is fine: PILL-ee-ay-tid ("pill" having a pileus, a cap or crest) or PIE-lee-ay-tid. Another is how do I tell the sexes? My immediate answer is whatever you want. If, though, you are asking how to recognize the sexes, males have a red stripe on the cheek pointing to the bill, and a flaming red crest, while the female only has the flaming red crest.


Much to our delight, a large flock of bluebirds visited our backyard last week and sampled the seeds from our feeders. We were thrilled to see so many bluebirds at one time. Since the birds continue to visit every day, we purchased some dry mealworms and a suet bell. What a welcome addition to our backyard birds!

— Carol and Rick, Pittsfield, Mass.

I saw a large bag of mealworms last week, and they seemed to me inexpensive. I was going to purchase one, and now I will.


While much of the world's population celebrates the new year on Jan. 1, for our Chinese friends, according to their zodiac, the New Year is variable, occurring between Jan. 21 and Feb. 16. This year, it begins on Feb. 16. Animals of the Chinese zodiac cycle every 12 years with this year being the Year of the Dog — and not any dog, but the Earth Dog. Those of us born in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, and back more than 3,000 years, like a dog are loyal, and are said to never abandon family. They are responsible in the work place and are also said to be stubborn. The 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac are, in order, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat/sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. I was born under the sign of the (Gold) Snake, and said to thrive under deadlines, prefer a peaceful life and become easily stressed.


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