Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Synonyms: Picus pileatus
GenusDryocopus (1)
SizeLength: 40 - 49 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 66 - 75 cm (3)
Weight250 - 350 g (2) (3)

The pileated woodpecker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Although a shy and secretive bird (4), the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a striking species and is one of the largest forest-dwelling birds in North America (3). Its plumage is mostly black, except for the conspicuous, triangular red crest on the crown and the black and white stripes running along its face (2) (3) (4). There is a white, crescent-shaped marking on the upperside of the wings. When in flight, the white oval-shaped markings on the underside of the wings are visible, but are mostly concealed when the pileated woodpecker is at rest (2) (3).

The pileated woodpecker has black legs and a large, powerful, slightly curved bill, which is roughly the same length as the head and has a chisel-like tip (2) (3) (4). The bill is dark grey above and yellow or horn-coloured below (2).

The male pileated woodpecker is slightly heavier than the female and has a red moustache-like marking on its face (2) (3) (4). The juvenile pileated woodpecker has a shorter crest and more rounded flight feathers than the adult, as well as flesh-coloured legs, which become darker as it ages. The eye of the juvenile is brown and becomes gold or yellow in the adult (2).

An extremely loud bird (3), the pileated woodpecker has a highly varied array of vocalisations, including a high-pitched ‘waa’, ‘wok’, ‘wuk’ and ‘cuk, cuk, cuk’ call. It also makes a loud, resonant drumming noise, which is produced in a rolling pattern when its bill hits dead trees at great speed (2) (3).

There are two recognised subspecies of pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus pileatus and Dryocopus pileatus abieticola. The subspecies are known to vary in colouration, bill size and range, with D. p. pileatus being smaller than D. p. abieticola (2). 

The large range of the pileated woodpecker spreads south from central Canada, along the west coast of the United States to California, and along the east coast to Florida. This species is found as far south as Mexico (2) (4) (5). 

The pileated woodpecker is mostly found in coniferous, deciduous or mixed forests where there is an abundance of fallen trees, as well as standing dead or deteriorating trees, into which it can excavate its nest and roosting cavities (2) (3). It can also be found in suburban areas, providing there are patches of woodland (3).

The pileated woodpecker is monogamous and territorial, and, as it is a non-migratory bird, pairs will defend their large territory year-round (2) (3). Only when one of the pair dies will the other find a new mate, which it then allows to move into its territory (2) (3). Pileated woodpecker pairs occasionally allow non-breeding adults within their territory (2) (3), although this is more frequent during the winter (3). To defend their territory, the pair will use vocalisations and drumming, as well as chasing, striking with twigs and poking the intruder with their bills during conflicts (2).

During the breeding season, the male pileated woodpecker selects a nest site and builds most of the nest, which is an oblong cavity in a tree lined with the shavings of wood that are produced during excavation. The nest can take up to six weeks to create (2) (3) (4). The excavations of the pileated woodpecker are made using its long, powerful bill, which is repeatedly drummed on the trunk of a dead tree to create an entrance hole into the hollow interior. The pileated woodpecker creates distinctive, rectangular holes which can be over 60 centimetres deep and are used for roosting and nesting (2) (3). The pileated woodpecker is an extremely important part of the forest ecosystem, as its excavations also provide shelter for many other species, including swifts, owls, bats and pine martens (2) (3).

The female pileated woodpecker lays one clutch per breeding season, with four eggs being most common, although the clutch can range between one and six eggs. The eggs are white and slightly glossy (2), and are incubated for 15 to 18 days by both the male and female, after which both sexes alternately feed the young in the nest for the next 24 to 28 days (2) (3). After three to five months, the young leave the adults, but do not venture far from the natal territory (2).

In addition to excavating holes for nest and roosting sites, the pileated woodpecker will drill holes into trees to gain access to its wood-boring insect prey, which includes carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.), termites, beetle larvae and other insects (2) (3) (4). The pileated woodpecker’s long, barbed tongue is used to extract its prey from the wood (3). This species also feeds on wild nuts and fruit (2) (3) (4).

Although it is a relatively common and abundant species (3), the pileated woodpecker is under threat from collisions with road traffic and increased predation due to habitat loss. It is also shot by humans, although this is illegal. The location of this bird’s roosts and nests in large trees puts it at risk from being struck by lightning. The pileated woodpecker is also known to attempt to create roosts in creosote-treated utility poles, which can cause the death of eggs and nestlings (2). 

A large amount of the pileated woodpecker’s habitat is protected by the United States Forest Service and its populations are monitored in some areas (2). As a ‘keystone species', the pileated woodpecker is an essential and irreplaceable part of its ecosystem, and it is very important to maintain the habitat it requires. Dead wood resources must be conserved and new cavity trees must be produced so that this species is able to continue excavating nest holes, and so in turn provide habitats for other species (2) (3).

More research is needed into the pileated woodpecker’s biology and the effects of human disturbances on its population (2). 

More information on the pileated woodpecker:

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  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2012)
  2. Bull, E.L. and Jackson, J.A. (1994) Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  3. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Pileated woodpecker (May, 2012)
  4. Deal, K.H. (2011) Wildlife and Natural Resource Management. Delmar Cengage Learning, New York.
  5. BirdLife International (May, 2012)