It was early morning and the fall sun had just made it over the horizon. The dogs were anxious to go for their morning walk. An insistent tapping caught my attention as we walked up the driveway. We stopped, the tapping stopped, we listened, the tapping started again. Suddenly we saw a young Pileated Woodpecker, in the grass a few feet from us, sitting on an old decaying log - digging for his breakfast. He wasn’t in the least bit bothered by us or our dogs, just watched us curiously.
A few months ago I’d been working in the yurt when I heard the sound of light tapping followed by a mild squawking. When I looked out the window a mother Pileated Woodpecker was teaching her baby how to peck for grubs and ants in an old log just under my window. I was honoured to have the opportunity to watch as she hovered over him as he tried and tried to get the hang of it. She talked to him, different squawks and pecks, as she walked and hopped from one log to the next as if to tell him that each held a different selection of bugs. That first Woodpecker moment has stayed with me for months, I have had dreams of them and it’s as if this new encounter was trying to wake me, to remind me of what is important to me.
Carl Jung believed that the Woodpecker was a symbol of a returning to the womb of creativity. The tree is symbolic of a womb; earthy, grounded, secure, sturdy. The Woodpecker’s home is within the tree and symbolizes the return home to protect what is sacred to us. It is said that when this bird come pecking it’s calling us back to our roots, to the womb of our ideas and asks us to follow through on our plans. Red-headed Woodpeckers, like the Pileated, are also associated with the root chakra and its protective energy, asking us to be aware of our basic beliefs. Woodpeckers use their heads to find food and shelter just as we have to use our heads, our intellect, to find solutions to our barriers.
The Woodpecker is found in many cultures including Roman mythology where the Woodpecker along with the Wolf fed Romulus and Remus in the forest when they were infants. Pawnee legends tell of a contest between the Woodpecker and Turkey to see who would be the protector of the human race. Although the Turkey had very large eggs the Woodpecker won because its nest was entirely safe deep inside tree trunks. Creek Shaman used Woodpecker beaks to ‘extract’ objects from the bodies of those who were ill. The Cherokee believed that the Dalala, a type of Woodpecker, struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. The Woodpecker was one of Buddha’s many incarnations.
Pileated Woodpeckers are about the size of a crow and live mainly on insects. They especially like carpenter ants and wood boring beetle larvae but they also eat fruits, nuts and berries including Poison Ivy berries. Their beaks are like a chisel chipping out large, roughly rectangular, holes into trees while searching for insects. Woodpeckers communicate with each other through pecked signals.
There are over 210 Woodpecker species and each is an important part of the ecosystem. Pileated Woodpeckers are known as a ‘keystone’ species because of the ecological benefit they provide in the Pacific Northwest. Secondary cavity users are provided with nesting and feeding sites when Pileated Woodpeckers abandon their nests. They also interact with many different organisms in the forest including wood-rotting fungi and are important in controlling insects that damage trees.