The Pileated Woodpecker is probably the most thrilling bird you can encounter in a daytime forest in North America. Now the third largest woodpecker in the world – following the likely extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – they are distinctive for their fiery red crests, loud drumming performances, and the massive holes they leave in trees.
As a kid growing up in western Washington, nothing was more exciting than getting a good look at a massive Pileated Woodpecker on the side of a tree deep in the forest – it was like seeing a real-life Woody Woodpecker!
Unlike many woodpeckers, they often forage near the base of trees and even on the ground, allowing great viewing opportunities for the patient observer. They also produce loud calls and knocking sounds and leave behind giant holes and woodchips that can alert you to their presence. In this guide, I’ll explain how you can find, observe, and help protect these beneficial birds in a forest near you.
The Pileated Woodpecker is a member of the order Piciformes, which also includes nine families of tree-dwelling birds, including other woodpeckers, toucans, honeyguides, and barbets. Within the order, it is further classified into its largest family, Picidae, which includes woodpeckers, sapsuckers, piculets, and wrynecks. The Pileated Woodpecker is a member of the subfamily Picinae – the true woodpeckers.
The Picinae contains 204 species in its 33 genera and can be found in most forested environments worldwide – except for in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar, on most islands, or in the polar regions.
Woodpeckers are arboreal, that is, adapted for life in the trees. Their zygodactyl feet – in which two toes point forward and two point backward – allow them to grip the bark of trees and climb vertical surfaces. They also have stiff tail feathers, which act as a brace when they are climbing or pecking into tough wood.
Woodpeckers, as their name suggests, are excellent at working wood. They have powerful bills shaped like chisels that easily bore into bark and wood when foraging for their preferred prey – insects. Special modifications in their skulls, brains, and muscles act as shock absorbers and enable them to smack their heads into hard trees all day. Once a hole has been carved out, they use their long extendable barb-tipped tongues to extract prey.
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of six species in the genus Dryocopus, which means “tree beating” in Ancient Greek. Woodpeckers of the genus Dryocopus are large often-crested black and white birds with red markings on their heads known for their loud laughter-like calls. Dryocopus woodpeckers live in forested areas of North America, South America, Asia, and Europe.
The Pileated Woodpecker – originally called “the larger red-crested woodpecker” – was first described by English naturalist Mark Catesby between 1729 and 1732. The specific epithetic of its scientific name, pileatus, means “capped” in Latin and refers to its large crest. The Pileated Woodpecker is the biggest woodpecker in North America – and likely the third largest woodpecker in the world.
Taxonomy At a Glance
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Subfamily: Picinae
- Tribe: Picini
- Genus: Dryocopus
- Species: Dryocopus pileatus
How to Identify the Pileated Woodpecker
If you see a large woodpecker in the forests of North America, it is most likely a Pileated Woodpecker. You’ll want to check the field markings closely, though, on the off-chance it could be its critically endangered and possibly extinct cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Pileated Woodpeckers are large birds, having a body length of 16 to 19 inches from head to tail and weighing between 8.8 to 12.3 ounces. In flight, they have an impressive 26-to-30-inch wingspan.
They have hefty chisel-shaped grayish silver bills that measure 1.6 to 2.4 inches long – almost as long as their heads. Asides from their bills, you’re likely to notice their bright red crests and white facial markings. Two white stripes also run down the sides of their necks through the sides of their breasts. Otherwise, their plumage is predominantly black, with a brownish hue.
Like most woodpeckers, adult Pileated Woodpeckers are sexually dimorphic, that is, males and females look different. Male Pileated Woodpeckers are slightly bigger and have red “mustaches” extending from their bills to their throats. They also have red foreheads. Females, meanwhile, have a black “mustache” and a mottled black forehead.
In flight, Pileated Woodpeckers show a lot of white on the undersides of their wings, but the trailing edges are black. Viewed from above, they have two white crescent-shaped markings on their otherwise black wings. They fly with slightly uneven flaps in a relatively straight line. Unlike most woodpeckers which dip and rise repeatedly in flight, Pileated Woodpecker flights show little to no undulation.
Because woodpecker young do not have down, older nestlings look like adults with shorter tails and less-defined features.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers look similar to adults, but their crests are shorter and look more like mohawks.
There are two subspecies of the Pileated Woodpecker, but they look nearly identical and are best identified by range.
- Dryocopus pileatus abieticola: The Northern Pileated Woodpecker, occurs from southern Canada south to the West Coast of the United States, as well as the north-central and northeastern United States. It is slightly larger than its southern counterpart.
- Dryocopus pileatus pileatus: The Southern Pileated Woodpecker, lives in the southeastern United States. It is slightly smaller than D. p. abieticola.
The bird most often confused with the Pileated Woodpecker is its cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The two species’ ranges overlap in the southeast and have famously confused ornithologists and birders desperate to locate the likely extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Pileated Woodpeckers are smaller than Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, but this will be hard to determine in the field without the two species side by side. To tell them apart, look instead at the markings.
Pileated Woodpeckers have gray bills and white chins. They also lack the white stripes extending down the middle of the back and the white wing triangle visible on perched Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. In flight, Pileated Woodpeckers have black trailing wing edges when viewed from above or below. On the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the trailing edges are white.
On occasion, you may also confuse a flying Pileated Woodpecker for a crow. To tell them apart, look for white markings on the wings. Crows, with the exception of rare alternate plumage types, will have all-black wings.
Pileated Woodpecker Vocalizations and Sounds
Pileated Woodpeckers are loud birds. If one is in the forest, you will know! Always take a minute to stop and listen, as this can lead you right to the birds.
Pileated Woodpeckers are territorial birds, and issue a long loud series that sounds like “kuk kuk kee kee kee kee” on a slow and irregular cadence that resonates through the forest. This call is so wild sounding and distinctive that it often shows up in movies depicting wilderness settings.
Watch this video of a male Pileated Woodpecker calling:
Pairs and families communicating with one another will issue loud single note “kuk” and “wuk” calls that travel great distances through dense forests.
Pileated Woodpeckers, like most woodpeckers, create loud knocking noises on resonant surfaces to proclaim their territories. This drumming serves the same role as a songbird’s song.
The Pileated Woodpecker’s instrument of choice is a dead hollow tree or branch, as this amplifies the sound. The drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker is a deep, slow, rolling series of about 15 beats per second that lasts about one to three seconds. The series accelerates slightly as it progresses, then trails off at the end. They often repeat the drum series once or twice per minute.
Watch this video of a male Pileated Woodpecker drumming:
Where Does the Pileated Woodpecker Live?
Pileated Woodpeckers live in wooded areas throughout North America and are fairly adaptable as long as they have access to a few big trees and snags.
The Pileated Woodpecker can be found throughout most of Canada, along the northern Pacific Coast of North America, throughout eastern North America, in the Great Lakes region of North America, and in the southeastern United States.
The Pileated Woodpecker can be found anywhere there is a large section of forest that includes some big trees, standing snags, and downed logs. They prefer extensive sections of dense, mature forests, but are fairly adaptable birds and will accept any coniferous, deciduous, or mixed forest that meets these requirements.
Acceptable Pileated Woodpecker habitats include boreal forests, old-growth Douglas-fir forests, cypress swamps, beech and maple forests, and hemlock stands. They have also been known to make do with large woodlots, parks, small patches of forest, suburban areas, wooded backyards, and city edges.
Western birds show a strong preference for old forests, but eastern birds appear to be adapting well to life in younger forests with smaller trees. They always require some big trees and are absent from agricultural areas and small woodlots that lack old trees.
Pileated Woodpecker Migration
Pileated Woodpeckers are not migratory and occupy the same territory year-round, although they will wander farther outside of the breeding season and when searching for food in winter.
Pileated Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Pileated Woodpeckers, like most woodpeckers, are primarily insect-eaters – and their favorite prey is ants.
The Pileated Woodpecker’s preferred prey is the carpenter ant – a woodland ant species found in damp wood. In some cases, carpenter ants make up 40% to 97% of their diet. They feed on them year-round, even searching out dormant colonies in the winter.
Pileated Woodpeckers also feed on other insects including large wood-boring beetle larvae, other ant species, caterpillars, grasshoppers, cockroaches, and termites.
Fruit and Nuts
Pileated Woodpeckers round out their nutrition with nuts and fruit, which make up about 25% of their diets. Greenbrier, sumac berries, poison ivy berries, dogwood, persimmon, sassafras, hackberries, elderberries, blackberries, and holly berries are all taken.
Pileated Woodpeckers will feed on suet at bird feeders, especially during harsh winters. They also occasionally feed on tree sap.
Pileated Woodpecker Breeding
The Pileated Woodpecker breeding season starts in early March in the southern regions of the range and mid-May in the northern regions. Pairs only raise one brood per year but will replace a lost clutch.
Pileated Woodpeckers engage in some flamboyant displays early in the season. Courting pairs will raise their crests, flash their white underwings, swing their heads from side to side, spread their wings, and bob their heads at one another.
Males also perform a display flight, in which they glide and circle a perched female. Sometimes males select a nest site and create an entrance hole in April, using it to attract females.
Pairs are monogamous, but individuals will re-mate if their mate dies.
Once paired, scouting for nest sites begins immediately. Both male and female Pileated Woodpeckers search their territory for potential nest sites, which are typically found 15 to 70 feet up in the biggest and tallest snag they can find.
The ideal nest site is usually in a dead tree or a dead section of a live tree within a stand of mature living trees. Sometimes this ends up being a snag, other times it ends up being a telephone pole. They will also use nest boxes.
The real estate market for nest sites is fierce, and Pileated Woodpeckers compete with European Starlings, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, Great Crested Flycatchers, and Eastern Bluebirds for the best sites.
Once a site is located, both the male and female will drum and peck the wood to determine the best location for the entrance hole. The male then creates the 3.25-to-4.5-inch oblong entrance hole, and performs most of the excavation, with a little help from the female.
He hollows out the 10- to 24-inch-deep cavity, hauling the wood chips away as needed. Near the end of the construction process, he climbs into the cavity and works from within. No lining is added, and the eggs will be laid directly on the woodchips and sawdust left over from the excavation.
Nest cavity building is hard work and takes about three to six weeks to complete. Once finished, the male begins roosting in the cavity in preparation for incubation duties. Pileated Woodpeckers do not reuse their nest cavities, instead creating a new one each year.
The nest cavities Pileated Woodpeckers create are beneficial to many other forest species. Old cavities are used as nest sites by owls, tree-nesting ducks, many songbirds, and wrens. Swifts, bats, raccoons, and pine martens will also use the holes as safe resting spots.
The female Pileated Woodpecker lays three to five eggs in the nest cavity, with a clutch size of four being the most common. The eggs, like the eggs of all woodpeckers, are pure white as there is no need for camouflage in the dark protected cavity. They are elliptical, smooth, and slightly glossy.
Both the male and the female share incubation duties for the 15-to-18-day incubation period, switching off throughout the day to allow for foraging. At night, the male incubates the eggs.
Pileated Woodpeckers are unusual among birds in that if their nest tree becomes damaged or falls down, they will carry their eggs to another roost hole and continue incubating them. In one notable case, a female moved her eggs after the nest tree fell while her mate was out foraging. When he returned, he searched until he found her new location and the pair continued raising their brood. Because Pileated Woodpeckers often choose the tallest tree in an area to nest in, lightning strikes are often a risk.
When the nestlings hatch, they are altricial, that is, naked and helpless. The parents take turns brooding them for their first ten days of life. Both parents feed the chicks by regurgitation.
When they are nine to 10 days old, their eyes open up and they are covered in bristly sheath-encased feathers. At 10 to 16 days old, their feathers emerge from their sheaths.
At just 26 to 28 days old, they fledge the nest but remain nearby under the care of their parents for two to three more months, dispersing in the fall and winter to find territories of their own.
Pileated Woodpecker Habits
Pileated Woodpeckers spend much of their days foraging in the forest and are most often seen clinging vertically to the side of trees, easily hitching up and around the trunks. They do take occasional breaks to drum and call to announce their territories. As you walk through the forest, be sure to listen – and look for wood chips on the ground and large holes in stumps, logs, and trees.
Pileated Woodpeckers must travel great distances and work hard to find enough insect prey each day. They scan the woods for rotten logs, which are often full of insects, and stands of dead trees full of ants and beetle larvae. They also dig up ant hills on the ground and clumsily climb around shrubs to pick berries. Pileated Woodpeckers forage at all heights within the forest environment, from the ground to the treetops. Occasionally, they will even forage on homes and around cars.
Once they find a good feeding spot, they get to work hammering, probing, and prying until they can use their long barbed tongues to reach the delicious insect morsels within. When striking, they whip their long necks back and smack the tree, pushing with their strong feet and bracing themselves against the tree with their stiff tails.
The loud whacking sound of a feeding woodpecker travels a great distance through the forest. Pileated Woodpeckers will stay at a profitable feeding site for a long time. So, if you hear that loud chopping sound, head in that direction!
While feeding, Pileated Woodpeckers often attract wrens and smaller woodpeckers, like Hairy Woodpeckers, who poach insects and take advantage of the larger Pileated Woodpecker’s ability to gouge deep into the wood. The holes created by foraging Pileated Woodpeckers can be one foot long or more.
Pileated Woodpeckers are helpful to many species in the forest. In addition to providing foraging opportunities for other species, they also keep the carpenter ant populations in check. The holes they produce in dead trees accelerate their decay – sometimes causing them to snap in half. Once they fall, they open up small patches of sunlight in the forest. This allows young trees to grow and keeps the forest healthy.
Pileated Woodpeckers require large areas of forest in order to find enough food to survive. They defend their territories year-round, drumming and calling to let other woodpeckers know to stay away. In the winter, they are a little more tolerant of intruders.
When battling an intruder, they will raise their wings to flash the white patches below. They will also call agitatedly, strike out with their powerful bills, smack the foe with their wings, and give chase.
Pileated Woodpeckers retire to their favorite roost holes in the evening, typically using old nest holes from previous years. Roost cavities often have two entrance holes – just like we have a front door and a back door.
Within the cavity, roosting birds cling to the side of the hollowed opening and tuck their heads under their wings. Sometimes swifts and bats will share the roost.
Pileated Woodpecker Predators
Being large agile birds (with pretty scary bills), adult Pileated Woodpeckers have few predators. But carnivorous birds including Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Great Horned Owls, and Barred Owls will make a meal of a Pileated Woodpecker if they get the chance. Fledglings are at a greater risk of predation.
Although their nests are high up in trees and safe from most predators, climbing animals like weasels, American martens, squirrels, raccoons, gray foxes, and rat snakes can access the nest and capture eggs, young, and roosting adults.
Humans are another predator of Pileated Woodpeckers. Many people find the birds a nuisance, especially when they start drumming and hammering on their homes. For the most part, these woodpeckers keep to the forest preferring large trees and rotten logs likely to contain their ant prey and pose little threat to your home. It is also illegal to harm or kill a Pileated Woodpecker – they are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is much better for everyone involved to use safe deterrents, like CDs or shiny objects hung on strings, to startle the birds away.
Pileated Woodpecker Lifespan
The oldest Pileated Woodpecker was at least 12 years and 11 months old when it was captured in Maryland. They can likely live up to 15 years, like other large species of woodpeckers.
Pileated Woodpecker Population
Pileated Woodpeckers are common throughout most of their range. Their populations are currently stable and, in some areas, like the southeastern United States, they have become numerous.
According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Pileated Woodpecker populations have increased at a steady rate from 1966 to 2019. Partners in Flight estimates a breeding population of 2.6 million birds.
Is the Pileated Woodpecker Endangered?
Currently, the Pileated Woodpecker is not at immediate risk of extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as having a status of least concern.
Historically, Pileated Woodpecker populations declined significantly when most of the eastern United States was logged in the late 1800s to early 1900s. But, with improved lumber and farming practices and the regrowth of many forests, their numbers quickly rose.
Like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, they require large foraging areas that contain standing dead trees. But Pileated Woodpeckers are more adaptable, accepting less desirable woodlots, parks, suburbs, and immature previously logged forests so long as a few big trees, snags, and fallen logs are present. Unlike its more habitat-specialized cousin, this species is learning to live alongside humans, even taking advantage of suet at feeders and making nest cavities in telephone poles.
Pileated Woodpeckers respond well to any assistance we give them. In areas where invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle carpet the forest floor and understory, clearing the plants provides more foraging habitats for these birds that often feed on or near the ground. Hanging nest boxes in areas with few good nest trees has also benefited the species. Leaving dead trees standing on your property is another way you can help these birds. With any luck, they will not suffer the same fate as their larger cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Answer: Yes and no! Pileated Woodpeckers are common throughout their large North American range but are more numerous in some areas than others. In the southeast, they are very common. But in the boreal forests of the north, along the Pacific Coast, in the Great Lakes area, and in New England they are less numerous. Their numbers are steadily increasing, so they will likely become even more common as the years go by! Pileated Woodpeckers are often confused with their larger similar-looking cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the southeastern United States. These birds are extremely rare and are most likely extinct.
Answer: Pileated Woodpeckers prefer large, old trees for nesting and roosting and standing dead trees and fallen logs for foraging. When it comes to species, they are flexible, accepting both conifers and hardwoods.
Answer: Pileated Woodpeckers sleep in tree cavities, usually nest holes that they constructed in previous years.
Answer: No, Pileated Woodpeckers do not eat squirrels. 75% of their diet is made up of insects, mainly carpenter ants. They also eat beetle larvae, termites, berries, and nuts.
Answer: Pileated Woodpeckers need large forested areas that include fallen logs and standing dead trees to thrive. If you live near a forest within their range, consider leaving snags and logs on your property to create foraging habitat. You can also put up a large nest box that is at least 45 feet above the ground to provide a nesting site. Offer suet and berries at your bird feeder, as these are some of their favorite treats besides ants.
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