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Garden Blog

Mysterious Visitor on Halloween

By Dawn Wagner Todd, MsK Nursery Intern

I had an apparently ghostly visitation as I potted baby Myrica last Friday.  I kept hearing a rapping sound, as if someone were working with tools nearby. I thought I was alone, and each time I looked around I saw nothing but the silent autumn trees.  Enjoying the sweet smell of the Katsura in the air I kept working, but I also kept expecting one of our energetic volunteers to appear with a shovel or a pick.  Nothing. When I went to fetch more pots I walked around a bit, still hearing the sounds of work, still seeing nothing. Finally a volunteer came up the path from the meadow. “Did you see the Pileated Woodpecker?” she asked. Mystery solved!

Unless you are lucky enough to have a very tall dead tree in your yard (preferably filled with carpenter ants) you will probably not be able to convince a mated pair of these Dryocopus pileatus to move in—but you might be able to have one of them over for dinner occasionally if you have fruit or nut trees, or bushes with edible berries (blackberry, sumac, dogwood, holly and elderberry would be welcome).

Not sure you’d recognize one? Pileated Woodpeckers are nearly as large as crows. They are mostly black, with white lines down their necks and a bright red crest. They are native to the entire eastern seaboard, across the northern United States, and down the west coast a fair way.

These fellows make large, rectangular holes in their search for carpenter ants and other insects. Once the hole is large enough, they climb in and chip away from the inside to make a nest. They are monogamous, the pair hold a large territory, and they hang around all year. If you don’t have any luck attracting them with your plantings, you can try hanging suet encrusted with seeds—that might just do the trick during the leaner winter months.