Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

Pileated Woodpecker

Tim Lenz/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The crow-sized pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America, and one of the largest woodpecker species in the world. This member of the Picidae family is easy to recognize because of its size and its bold markings, but many birders are surprised at the other pileated woodpecker facts they uncover when they learn more about these incredible birds.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Dryocopus pileatus
  • Common Name: Pileated Woodpecker
  • Lifespan: 12-13 years
  • Size: 16-19 inches
  • Weight: 9-12 ounces
  • Wingspan: 26-30 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Pileated Woodpecker Identification

These woodpeckers are easily identified by size, but birders should note other field marks and features to avoid confusing them with crows or ravens. The straight, stout, grayish-black bill is a good clue and immediately helps identify this bird as a woodpecker. Males are solid black though the underparts may appear dark gray. The cheeks and throat are marked with thick black and white stripes and a white line continues down the bird's side. The vibrant red, triangular-shaped crest extends from the forehead to the nape, and the mustache is a darker red but may appear black in poor light.

Females have the same markings but a black mustache and forehead, and their red crests are somewhat shorter and less brilliant. Both genders show large white underwing patches in flight and have black legs and feet. Juvenile birds look similar to adult females.

While these birds do not sing, their loud, rapid "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" calls are just as distinctive and slightly accelerate toward the end of the call. The drumming of pileated woodpeckers is relatively slow and even, but also accelerates near the end of each sequence. There are long gaps between bursts of drumming.

Pileated Woodpecker vs. Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The pileated woodpecker is very similar to the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. In fact, the birds look so similar, it is believed a brief sighting of a pileated woodpecker may have been responsible for the ivory-billed woodpecker "rediscovery" in Arkansas in 2004-05, a rediscovery that was strongly debated and disputed, as strong, corroborative evidence could not be obtained. To date, the ivory-billed woodpecker is considered extinct, but optimistic birders still believe an isolated population may exist somewhere within its widespread historic range.

The pileated woodpecker is slightly smaller than the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the ivory-bill's wings have much more white, particularly on the upperside. That white shows when the wings are folded, whereas the pileated woodpecker's wings are completely dark when folded. As indicated by the name, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a pale bill, while the pileated woodpecker's bill is dark. Ivory-billed woodpeckers show white on the back while pileated woodpecker's are black, and the chin and throat of ivory-billed woodpeckers are black while the pileated woodpecker has a white chin and throat.

Pileated Woodpecker Habitat and Distribution

Pileated woodpeckers inhabit old forests with large trees throughout the boreal region of central Canada and the Pacific Northwest as far south as northern California. Deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous forests are preferred. Their range extends through the eastern United States from Minnesota, Iowa, and the eastern portions of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to the Atlantic coast into Florida and along the Gulf Coast to southeastern Texas. Because these large woodpeckers rely on large, mature trees for suitable habitat, they are absent from plains areas and grasslands. They can be found in suburban and park settings where suitable trees are found.

Migration Pattern

Pileated woodpeckers do not migrate. When suitable trees are removed from local woodpeckers' ranges, however, the birds may move on to adjacent areas where the habitat is more favorable. That relocation is permanent and is not considered a type of migration.

Behavior

The pileated woodpecker is a solitary bird but can be found in pairs, especially during the breeding season. These birds will defend the same territory throughout the year but are more tolerant of other woodpeckers in the winter. Their flight pattern is an undulating line with short glides when the wings are pulled in to the body, and the wing beats are relatively slow. Their bright red crest is mobile and may be raised or lowered to show different emotions or moods.

Diet and Feeding

These woodpeckers are omnivorous and change their diet seasonally to whatever foods are most abundant. In spring and summer, they will eat a variety of insects and larvae, while in fall and winter they will include more nuts, fruit, and berries in their diet. When foraging, they will use their powerful bills to bore deep, rectangular holes or peel off strips of bark in search of insects, and they will feed on large trees as well as fallen logs. Pileated woodpeckers may even occasionally feed on the ground.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds. As cavity-nesters, they excavate a suitable cavity 10-24 inches deep in a dead tree. The nesting cavity has an elongated opening 15-85 feet above the ground, and the birds may leave a few wood chips inside for lining.

Eggs and Young

The oval- or elliptical-shaped eggs are plain white with a subtle glossy finish. The male parent will do most of the 16-18 days of necessary incubation. Both parents care for the altricial young for 26-28 days after hatching, and a mated pair will raise one brood of 2-8 eggs each year. Young pileated woodpeckers remain close to their parents in a loose family group for several months but will seek out their own mates and territories at the beginning of the next breeding season.

Pileated Woodpecker Conservation

While these woodpeckers are not considered threatened or endangered, their solitary nature makes them more susceptible to habitat loss, especially when mature forests are cleared or dead trees are removed from landscapes. Protecting suitable habitat is essential to protect pileated woodpeckers. Furthermore, because many other birds such as cavity-nesting ducks, swifts, and owls will reuse the nests of pileated woodpeckers, protecting these birds can help many other species at the same time. Similarly, some wrens and smaller woodpeckers may also visit pileated woodpecker foraging locations when feeding. Because of these nesting and feeding associations, pileated woodpeckers are often carefully monitored to gauge the overall health of an avian ecosystem.

Tips for Backyard Birders

These woodpeckers tend to be shy but will come to yards with sufficient large trees and where suet or nuts are offered in broad, large feeders that these oversized woodpeckers can easily access. Backyard birders should leave old trees or fallen logs in place to attract foraging woodpeckers. Minimizing pesticide use will also help ensure a good supply of insects for pileated woodpeckers to find.

How to Find This Bird

Pileated woodpeckers are solitary and can be challenging to find. Visiting mature, relatively undisturbed forests within their range is best, and birders should look for woodpecker damage on trees to determine if pileated woodpeckers have been foraging or nesting in the area. In known nesting areas, these woodpeckers can be easier to locate, but great care should be taken not to disturb active nests or stress breeding birds.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Picidae bird family is a diverse one that includes not only woodpeckers, but also piculets and wrynecks. In total, more than 250 birds are part of this family, and birders who love woodpeckers should also check out these fine birds:

Don't miss our other wild bird profile fact sheets to learn even more about all your favorite birds!