They are one of our most striking and impressive birds, about crow-sized, black with a white stripe down the neck and a brilliant red crest. The male has red stripes on his cheeks. The underwings are white.
They prefer old growth deciduous forests with lots of dead trees, stumps, and fallen logs because these areas support their favorite foods-carpenter ants-which they excavate with their long beaks and long, sticky tongue. They also eat beetle larvae, termites and other wood boring insects. They will eat fruits and nuts, especially in winter when insects may be scarce. Such foods as sumac, poison oak and ivy berries are commonly consumed in winter.
They nest in large, square tree cavities, 3-5 eggs, and mate for life. Their nests are used only once and become a major shelter/nest for many other species including swifts, owls, ducks, pine martens, etc. The oldest known one was around 12 years.
The best(easiest) time to photograph them is in mid-winter when they are hungriest and must seek food out and away from the security of the tree trunk, usually seeking fruit from such as poison ivy berries. All the leaves are gone and they are more easily seen. Some of the pictures below show how they expose themselves as they are out on the limbs of a pecan tree trying to reach poison ivy berries on a large vine growing up the tree. Find these berries in the winter and you will see this impressive bird. Check out the pics below taken in an old pecan tree at the edge of The Field.