Pileated Woodpecker

by Karin Bolcshazy

I had never seen a pileated woodpecker until I moved to Franklin Park, and I was awed by its size and beautiful coloring. ("Pileated" refers to the bird's prominent red crest, from the Latin pileatus meaning "capped".) Since our lot is wooded and there's an old woodpile in the back yard, he or she comes occasionally and goes to town on the woodpile. It's something to watch and hear!

Some 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

The pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America and the largest woodpecker species in the world. These birds are easily identified by their size and their preferred habitat with large, sturdy trees that can support their exuberant drilling. More common in the eastern United States, pileated woodpeckers can be found in many northwestern forests as well.

The bird appears almost all black except for a black-, white- and red-striped head with a pointed red crest. In flight, large, white underwing patches show. Males are slightly larger than females and are distinguished by a red malar ("mustache") stripe and solid red from the crest to the beak. Females lack the red malar stripe and have a small yellowish-brown patch on their foreheads in front of the red crest. Like most woodpeckers, its toes are arranged in a zygodactyl pattern—2 forward and 2 back—to better grasp and climb on trees.

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.

Death and decay mean survival for pileated woodpeckers. Snags, logs, and weakened live trees provide the soft wood inhabited by carpenter ants, a favorite food. Pileated woodpeckers also need trees big enough to contain the large nest cavities they excavate. Old-growth forests meet these habitat needs, and Douglas-fir, especially in western Oregon, is a choice nest and roost tree.

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.

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.

With their stout, chisel-like beaks, pileated woodpeckers dig for ants and wood-boring beetle larvae deeper than most other woodpeckers can reach, past the tree's cambium (thin layer of living, growing tissue). They also pick insects off branches and scale bark off trees in search of food. Fruit from serviceberry and Oregon grape is sometimes on the menu, as well as nuts. Like many woodpeckers, their long retractable tongues have barbs and sticky saliva to snare bugs.

Pileated woodpeckers give a variety of calls, from soft chucks to a louder, repeated, "cuk, cuk, cuk." These calls, along with drumming against the resonant trunk of a dead tree, are often tied to courtship or territoriality.

Have you ever wondered how woodpeckers avoid brain damage, striking at wood up to 12,000 times a day? Sponge-like rear skull bones, along with a well-cushioned brain cavity and minimal cerebrospinal fluid (less sloshing around) help absorb the impact.

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.

Pairs mate for life and produce one summer brood. Courtship begins in early spring with head swinging, drumming, wing spreading displays, and crest raising. Both sexes help build a new nest cavity each year, typically in a dead or decaying tree. The opening averages 9 cm (3.5 in) wide, though it can be larger, and may reach 66 cm (24 in) deep. If you come across a relatively large, rectangular shaped opening in a decaying tree, with lots of fresh wood chips below it, you may have just stumbled upon a nest cavity.

After laying an average of four white, oval eggs, the female shares incubation duties with the male. In 15 to 18 days, the eggs hatch into naked and helpless (altricial) young that are fed regurgitated insects. By 2 to 3 weeks, nestlings "cuk" from within the nest. By 4 weeks, they fledge (mid-May to early July in California), but remain dependent on the adults for several more months.

Predators at the nest can include American martens, weasels, squirrels. Free-flying adults have fewer predators, but can be taken in some numbers by hawks, great horned owls, and eagles.

The young will seek out their own mates and territories at the beginning of the next breeding season.

Thanks to pileated woodpeckers, many forest animals have a place to shelter overnight and nest! Secondary cavity nesters, like small owls, ducks, bats, and flying squirrels, who cannot build their own nests, rely on abandoned cavities excavated by primary cavity nesters, like the pileated woodpecker. Large cavity nesters, like fishers (large weasels), are especially dependent on spacious pileated nest holes. But that's not all that makes this bird a keystone forest species. Its excavations also knock a vast amount of wood out of trees, speeding decomposition and nutrient cycling.

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.

Information obtained from several sources, among them: