Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… that flash of red may be seen in every month and season of the year. Before I see the first flash of red I may hear a loud pounding reverberation which resembles someone using a hammer on wood. In the woods or even while exploring the meadow I stop to locate the source of that sound; which is generally is coming from a tree nearby. Then the pounding sound is replaced by a loud laughing noise; which many of you will recognize as the sound of a popular cartoon character known as Woody. We are blessed in our area to see “Woody” all year round. Some Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) will migrate, but many, if they have an adequate source of food, will stay in our location throughout the year.

The pileated woodpecker’s diet is mainly that of an omnivore (eating both plants and animals). In addition to carpenter ants and wood-boring beetles, it will also consume fruits and berries; which include poison ivy, sumac and bittersweet. It becomes evident that a pileated is visiting your neighborhood when you discover extremely large rectangular hole or holes in nearby trees. There will also be a rather large pile of wood chips on the ground below the hole. The woodpecker will chip away until it has located the ant galleries (eggs and larvae) within the infected tree. It will then use its long barbed tongue and sticky saliva to extract the ants. The rectangular cavities, created by the woodpecker, may eventually be used by the woodpecker, other birds or even small mammals for nesting sites or shelter. I actually found one of the cavities that had been claimed by a snake.

I find it amazing that a pileated woodpecker can withstand the blows to its brain while pecking and removing large wood chunks without damaging its brain. Scientists have studied this bird in hopes of replicating and improving safety feature in our cars. Using CT scans of live woodpeckers and constructing a digital model of software that simulates the pecking; it has been determined that the pecking force is as much as fifteen hundred gravitational force units. A person on an average roller coaster only experiences five gravitational force units. The strain on the woodpecker’s head is actually redirected to the rest of its body. The woodpecker’s thick neck muscles diffuse the blow and a third inner eyelid prevents the eyeball from popping out and a thick spongy bone cushions the brain much like a football helmet. They dig their sharp claws into the tree and also use their tail as a brace.

The pileated woodpecker is about seventeen inches in height. Its body is mostly black and it has a large red crest and white neck stripes. The male has a red mustache and red forehead while the female has a black mustache and black forehead; other than those two different features they are almost monomorphic (having the same appearance). Their name may be pronounced either as Pie-lee-ay-ted or Pill-ee-ay-tid.

A second flash of red often comes when I spy another favorite bird that may also be seen throughout the year. This is the dramatic red color of a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The males and females of this species are dramatically different in their plumage. This makes sense for the many female birds that nest in the open and would be more visible to predators while incubating her eggs. The male and female cardinals have a different approach to incubation than most birds. The female northern cardinal will do all of the incubating of the eggs exclusively. The male will continually bring her food the entire time, and help her to “upgrade” the nest by bringing her nesting materials.

However, once the eggs have hatched the male cardinal with now have full responsibility for bringing food to her and the hatchling. Once the hatchlings have fledged they will also be his responsibility to help them learn what to eat and where to find it. The female will leave the hatchlings and the male and may even find another male and have a second brood that same season. If you have heard the term “to sing for one’s supper” this aptly applies to the female cardinal. When she is brooding and incubating on the nest she will sing for the male to bring her food. The male northern cardinals sing all year long not just during mating season. At least sixteen different sounds are produced by both the male and female. The brilliant red plumage of the male is attributed to his diet and the ingesting of carotenoid pigments during the fall molt in September and October. Many fruits and insects are a high source of carotenoids while most seeds are not.

The maximum life expectancy of the northern cardinal is about fifteen years. I have also learned that our Northern Cardinal was introduced into Hawaii in 1929. They have adapted extremely well and it is very common to see one or more on all of the Hawaiian Islands. As I mentioned the male cardinal is responsible for feeding his fledglings. On many occasions I have watched as he feeds the begging fledglings’ peanut butter suet, which is one of the foods, I provide in addition at the seed feeders site. The cardinals both male and female will also come to eat the unsalted peanuts. Another curious story about a northern cardinal I heard from a friend. He was visiting a local private zoo where they feed the koi fish that reside in a pond on their property. They sell the visitors pellets to feed the fish. The fish will congregate near the dock and open their gaping mouths to be fed. A northern cardinal male seemed to have adopted them too and would drop insects into their gaping mouths.

Sometimes we don’t need to go much beyond our own property to see, discover and share with the critters and creatures…

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at