Many years ago, while working in my large vegetable garden in Western Massachusetts, I heard the loud whack, whack, whack of someone chopping wood. I guessed it was our neighbor taking down a tree in the narrow strip of woods that separated our properties. It was a kind of no man’s land, since we were uncertain where his land ended and ours began.

I put down my garden tools and walked over to say hello. But there was no one there, at least no one human. Instead I found a pileated woodpecker hacking away at the base of a dead stump. I had been completely convinced hat the sound was man-made. I froze in place and watched the big bird splintering the rotting wood in search of insects. I’ve never forgotten the loud chopping sound of the focused hammering of its powerful head and beak.

More recently, while hiking a trail during my month-long solo retreat this past March, I heard the loud raucous call of a pileated woodpecker, the largest of all woodpeckers in the US. I don’t see them frequently so it was with pleasure that I searched the treetops to catch a glimpse of one. There it was, sailing high in the canopy, flashing its distinctive black and white wings. I heard a second pileated call farther away, surely its mate; pileated woodpeckers are monogamous and spend the year together.

Then, as luck would have it, the bird flew down to a dead tree not far in front of me along the trail and hung upside-down on a branch. I couldn’t believe it! For a few brief moments I had a clear view of the bird doing what its does best, excavating old wood to find food. In the photograph below you can see an oval-shaped hole it had carved out sometime before. You can also see the woodpecker’s long tongue extended mid-air. Their barbed tongues slide into the openings they make and extrude carpenter ants, grubs and other wood-boring creatures.

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