The first gift of the pileated woodpecker was offered to me one morning as I was seeking alone time from Easter visitors. I sneaked out and parked my van next to a slough to write, and see wildlife.

Opening the windows, I inhaled cool fecund air and was about to take up my pen when shadows flashed over the van. Two big black birds with flaming red caps coasted into sight over the slough, their underwings extensively white.

I’d never seen them before. For big birds they landed gracefully on the gray trunk of a dead ash tree 20 feet away.

They lurched up the tree, attacking the trunk with admirable fervor. Chips, nay veritable chunks, of wood sprayed into the air and rained down into the water. Aha! Woodpeckers.

Female pileated woodpecker.
Photo by Bill Vossler

My breath caught. I froze, lest I spook them. They were one of nature‘s free gifts, a surprise and wonder, beautiful stunning creatures, like remnants from primal forests of the Triassic.

Mesmerized, I watched as they whacked away at the wood with their sharp chisel-like beaks, special yellow feathers covering their nostrils, preventing inhalation of wood dust. With their long sticky tongues they ingested carpenter ants and beetle larvae, their favorite, (though they will also eat fruits and nuts).

Later I discovered they were pileated woodpeckers (pile- or pill-eated, Driocopus pileatus, 16-19 inches tall, with a wingspan of 26-30 inches), the largest woodpecker in North America since the demise of the ivory-billed, except for Mexico’s imperial woodpecker.

Seeing the pileateds lightened my heart, and I wanted to see them more often. But how? Erect quarters by a slough? Purchase hordes of carpenter ants or beetle larvae?

By coincidence, I had started supplementing black oil sunflower seeds on my feeder with suet. A week later I heard a wild high-pitched but slow kuk, kuk, kuk cry, followed by rapidly escalating kuk-kuk-kuk-kuks that transported me to primeval jungles. A male pileated swooped in, a slash of red across its cheek. My jaw dropped.

He paused on the branch to consider the five options on today’s menu: hot pepper, pecan, raisin, mealworm and peanut butter delight. He fixed me with his wild-eyed stare, his head feathers rumpled by the breeze, sampled mealworm and pecan as hors d’oeuvres, moving to the entree, peanut butter delight, which he worked over for five minutes.

Over the next few years, pileateds became staples, often visiting the suet cafe several times a day. Each time I simply had to stop and partake of the gift of their beauty and majesty. I got to recognize at least 1- adults and two young, and every time I saw them–the red cap of the male covering the top of the head almost to the bill, the female’s grayish to brown forehead– my heart was gladdened.

    That all changed this summer. They stopped coming. Weeks went by. Months. I doubled their favorite suets, to no avail. I was crushed. Occasionally on a walk I heard the cry or drumming, or spotted its distinctive undulating woodpecker flight. But my cupboard remained bare of pileateds.

At times I gazed sadly out my window, wondering what had happened to them. In late November, my heart caught in my throat when out of the blue I heard the kuk-kuk-kuk once more. A young pileated dropped in and wrestled with the suet, eating his fill. On Thanksgiving day, two more showed.

Now they‘ve returned in full force. Every day I can look forward to another of these free gifts from nature, the pileated woodpeckers.