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.Back to top
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.Back to top
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.
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.
|Clutch Size:||3-5 eggs|
|Number of Broods:||1 brood|
|Egg Length:||1.2-1.4 in (3-3.5 cm)|
|Egg Width:||0.9-1.0 in (2.4-2.6 cm)|
|Incubation Period:||15-18 days|
|Nestling Period:||24-31 days|
|Condition at Hatching:||Naked and helpless.|
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 tongue 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 neck to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bill, 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.Back to top
Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common and numerous. Their populations steadily increased from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.9 million with 67% living in the U.S., and 33% in Canada. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds 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.Back to top
Pileated Woodpeckers sometimes visit backyard bird feeders, especially for suet. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.
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.
Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.Back to top
Bull, Evelyn L. and Jerome A. Jackson. (2011). Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.
Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.
Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, USA.
Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.
North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.
Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.
Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.
Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.