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Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. It’s nearly the size of a crow, black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest. Look (and listen) for Pileated Woodpeckers whacking at dead trees and fallen logs in search of their main prey, carpenter ants, leaving unique rectangular holes in the wood. The nest holes these birds make offer crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.

Yard Map Birds Eye View
Funky Nests

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.7–19.3 in
40–49 cm
Wingspan
26–29.5 in
66–75 cm
Weight
8.8–12.3 oz
250–350 g
Relative Size
Nearly the size of an American Crow
Other Names
  • Grand pic (French)
  • (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Pileated Woodpecker digs characteristically rectangular holes in trees to find ants. These excavations can be so broad and deep that they can cause small trees to break in half.
  • A Pileated Woodpecker pair stays together on its territory all year round. It will defend the territory in all seasons, but will tolerate new arrivals during the winter.
  • The feeding excavations of a Pileated Woodpecker are so extensive that they often attract other birds. Other woodpeckers, as well as House Wrens, may come and feed there.
  • The Pileated Woodpecker prefers large trees for nesting. In young forests, it will use any large trees remaining from before the forest was cut. Because these trees are larger than the rest of the forest, they present a lightning hazard to the nesting birds.
  • The oldest known Pileated Woodpecker was 12 years 11 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Pileated Woodpeckers live in mature deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands of nearly every type, from tall western hemlock stands of the Northwest to beech and maple forests in New England and cypress swamps of the Southeast. They can also be found in younger forests that have scattered, large, dead trees or a ready supply of decaying, downed wood. Throughout their range, Pileated Woodpeckers can also be found in suburban areas with large trees and patches of woodland.

Food


Insects

The Pileated Woodpecker’s primary food is carpenter ants, supplemented by other ants, woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. They also eat wild fruits and nuts, including greenbrier, hackberry, sassafrass, blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. In some diet studies, ants constituted 40 percent of the diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals. Occasionally, Pileated Woodpeckers visit backyard bird feeders for seeds or suet.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.2–1.4 in
3–3.5 cm
Egg Width
0.9–1 in
2.4–2.6 cm
Incubation Period
15–18 days
Nestling Period
24–28 days
Egg Description
White.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless.
Nest Description

The male begins excavating then nest cavity and does most of the work, but the female contributes, particularly as the hole nears completion. The entrance hole is oblong rather than the circular shape of most woodpecker holes. For the finishing touches, the bird climbs all the way into the hole and chips away at it from the inside. Periodically the adult picks up several chips at a time in its bill and tosses them from the cavity entrance. Pileated Woodpeckers don’t line their nests with any material except for leftover wood chips. The nest construction usually takes 3-6 weeks, and nests are rarely reused in later years. Cavity depth can range from 10-24 inches.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Nest trees are typically dead and within a mature or old stand of coniferous or deciduous trees, but may also be in dead trees in younger forests or even in cities. Dead trees are a valuable resource as nest sites or shelter for birds and other animals, and Pileated Woodpeckers battle for ownership with Wood Ducks, European Starlings, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Great Crested Flycatchers. Occasionally bats and swifts share roost cavities with Pileated Woodpeckers.

Behavior


Bark Forager

Pileated Woodpeckers forage in large, dead wood—standing dead trees, stumps, or logs lying on the forest floor. They make impressive rectangular excavations that can be a foot or more long and go deep inside the wood. These holes pursue the tunnels of carpenter ants, the woodpecker’s primary food. The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae (which can be more than an inch long) or termites lying deep in the wood. When hammering into this soft wood, Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow. The sound is often audible as a heavy thunk, and large chips of wood collect on the ground below. Pileated Woodpeckers are monogamous and hold large territories; it’s rare to see more than two birds together at a time. When one member of a pair dies, the other often gains a new mate, and this is one of the main ways that new individuals get a chance to breed and hold a territory. Their flight is strong, but slow and slightly undulating; the wingbeats are deep but quick and somewhat unevenly paced.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common and numerous. Their populations steadily increased from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.9 million with 67 percent occurring in the U.S. and 33 percent in Canada. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Pileated Woodpeckers rely on large, standing dead trees and fallen logs—something that property managers may consider undesirable. It’s important to maintain these elements both for the insect food they provide and for the many species of birds and mammals that use tree cavities. Historically, Pileated Woodpeckers probably declined greatly with the clearing of the eastern forests but rebounded in the middle twentieth century as these forests came back.

Credits

  • Bull, E. L., and J. A. Jackson. 1995. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 148 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.

Range Map Help

Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory)

Backyard Tips

If you have dead or dying trees or snags on your property, consider leaving them alone as they may attract Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as other woodpeckers, nuthatches, etc.) to forage, roost or even nest in them. Pileated Woodpeckers sometimes visit backyard bird feeders, especially for suet.

Find This Bird

Look for Pileated Woodpeckers in stands of mature forest with plenty of dead trees and downed logs—deep excavations into rotten wood are telltale signs of this species. Also listen for this bird's deep, loud drumming and shrill, whinnying calls. Pileated Woodpeckers occur at all heights in the forest, and are often seen foraging on logs and near the bases of trees.

Get Involved

Keep track of the Pileated Woodpecker at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

You Might Also Like

Here's an incredible up-close video of a Pileated Woodpecker coming to a suet feeder. Just don't turn your sound up too loud, as this bird makes quite an entrance.