Pileated Woodpeckers in Farm Country

After a week in Cincinnati, I left for Missouri this morning, driving northwest through Indiana.  Despite the sunny, mild weather, only a dozen or so birds flew across my path between Cincinnati and Terre Haute; a great egret and a yellow-billed cuckoo were among them but almost half were pileated woodpeckers.

Fairly common in forested areas of the Eastern U.S., Canada and coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, these large woodpeckers may be mistaken for crows at a distance; up close, however, their striking red crests, white facial stripes and large white underwing patches make identification easy.  Favoring mature forests and wooded swamplands, pileated woodpeckers are monogamous; as breeding season approaches, they excavate large oval or rectangular cavities in dead trees.  Feeding primarily on carpenter ants, they also consume a wide variety of beetles, nuts and berries; three to five young are generally raised in a single brood each year.  Vacated cavities are later used by screech owls, tree squirrels, martens, bats and a host of cavity-nesting songbirds.

Once threatened by the clearing of forests across the Eastern U.S., pileated woodpeckers have since adapted to a wide range of woodlands and may even be found in suburban parks; indeed, some turn up at backyard feeding stations during the colder months.  This morning's encounters attest to their presence in Midwestern farmlands, where woodlands are primarily limited to hillsides and stream channels.