Flying high with pileated memories

New Hampshire Union Leader
March 17. 2012 11:45PM

I had another piece already written for this issue (we'll save it for a rainy day) when I saw Stacey Cole's 'Nature Talks' column in the New Hampshire Union Leader and couldn't resist writing about it. Stacey has seniority, having written his column for almost 50 years, and I'm second with a mere 38, so I get to scrounge for the gleanings.

Stacey had a letter from a Derry reader who'd heard a barrage of hammering in the woods behind his house. Because the reader lives adjacent to conservation land, he had plenty of room to slog around and investigate.

He finally zeroed in and came upon 'the most beautiful giant black bird with a large red crest, drumming on our neighbor's tree. We were all in awe at this amazing bird.'

He looked it up and found that it was what many readers might have guessed by now, a pileated woodpecker. From that day on he's been obsessed, taking numerous photos and keeping a journal.

This great bird, a close cousin to the long-romanticized ivorybill but smaller in size, is a sight to see in the deep woods or at the edges of pastures and fields, which it seeks out to augment its diet of insects derived from hammering the bark off (or holes into) larger trees.

At an early age at Clarksville Pond I was taught how to handle a gun and travel the woods. During bird season, I was allowed to take off with a shotgun after cabin and boat chores were done. The old Scott Opening, up over the ridge from the pond, had overgrown apple and berry patches and was a good place to find rabbits and grouse.

One October afternoon, as I was headed home, I saw a huge bird flitting through the woods. Well, 'flitting' is not quite the right term for such a large bird. 'Doing the dipsy-do' is better. It looked like it was flying from the top of a wave down into the trough and up onto the top of another. And this was interspersed with one of the wildest and most haunting cries I've ever heard from a bird (a short poem there).

I rushed back to the main camp and related my story. 'Cock of the woods,' was the verdict from the older guys sharing tall tales and tumblers of Old Skunk after a hard day afield.

Thus I learned the colloquial term for the pileated, which I pronounce 'pill-eated,' but others pronounce 'pie-lated.'

It's the same argument you can get into with the flowering (and prehistoric) lupine, as to whether it's 'lew-pin' or 'loo-pyne.' FYI: It's 'lew-pin,'- 'lew-pine' meaning, conversely, 'wolf-like.' And in fact we have lupines (the plants) at the farm to go along with the pileated woodpeckers - and maybe the wolves, too.

(Personal note to West Swanzey: I'll never catch up with you, Stacey, and you can't quit, because where would that leave me?)

John Harrigan's column appears weekly. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576, or

John Harrigan

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