Pileated Woodpecker

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Pileated Woodpecker
Dryocopus pileatus

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest of the common woodpeckers found in North America. They are 16 to 19 inches long, weigh between 8 to 12 ounces, with a wingspan of 26 to 30 inches. Northern birds tend to be larger in size than birds in southern populations. The Pileated Woodpecker's feathers appear black. The Pileated Woodpecker has a long tail that they use as brace when chiseling. Underneath their wings, they have white wing linings which are visible during flight and when a wing is extended. They have a white line that starts at the bill and runs across the cheek and down the neck.

Both the male and female have the a crest. The red crest on the male starts from the bill and runs to the nape. On the female the red crest starts farther back on the head. Males have a white line over the eyes. Females have a dark forehead. Males have a red mustachios stripe, females black. The eye color on Adult birds is yellow. Immature are similar to the adult, but have a shorter crest and brown eyes.

The upper part of the bill is blackish in color, while the bottom part of the bill is considered "horn colored." They have a long, sharp, black bill, with yellow bristly feathers over their nostrils that help keep out wood chips. In flight they can be identified by the white under wing coverts, and sweeping wing beats.

The call of a Pileated Woodpecker is unmistakable and was the inspiration for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. Its drumming can be very loud, often sounding like someone striking a tree with a hammer. Its loud ringing calls and huge excavations in dead trees announce its presence in mature forests across the continent.


Click for Pileated Woodpecker sounds.

Diet, Drumming & Predators

Pileated woodpeckers do not discriminate between coniferous and deciduous trees as long as they yield the ants and beetle larvae that make up much of the birds' diet. Woodpeckers sometimes access these morsels by peeling long strips of bark from the tree, but they also forage on the ground and supplement their diet with fruits, nuts & berries. They mainly eat wood-boring insects and insects that nest in trees, especially carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae.

The Pileated Woodpecker's favorite food item is the Carpenter Ant. The Pileated Woodpecker also eats other insects such as wood boring beetle larvae. They obtain their food by scaling bark off trees and creating excavations in trees to expose ant galleries. The Pileated Woodpecker uses it's long tongue to catch and extract ants from tunnels. The Pileated Woodpecker has been seen drinking water from streams and ponds. And as we have seen on the trail they enjoy suet.

They chip out large holes in trees with their long sharp bill, searching for insects. They have a long sticky barbed tongue which they stick in the excavated holes to pull out ants and other insects. These excavations host a diverse array of other birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates which use its cavities for feeding, shelter and nesting. These holes can cause a small tree to break in half. And we have seen what they can do to a couple of tremendous oaks!

You may see a Pileated woodpecker as it flies from tree to tree searching for insects. When it detects a grub beneath the bark it will begin its slow methodic hammering. The head swings in a large ark, chips fly as the bill smashes into the tree like a sledge-hammer with a force that you might think would break its neck. When the hammering stops he will probe the holes with his pointed, spear like tongue until he gets his meal.

The enthusiastic drumming that creates such holes is audible for a great distance. Woodpeckers also drum to attract mates and to announce the boundaries of their territories. Drumming is done by striking their bill on a hard surface such as a tree or utility pole at 15 beats per second.

Predators of the Pileated Woodpecker include the Northern Goshawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl, American Marten, Gray Fox, Barred Owl, Weasels and Squirrels.

Nests & Nesting

The Pileated Woodpeckers on Deer Trail can be seen year round, they do not migrate. They will defend the territory in all seasons, but will tolerate floaters during the winter. Territory size varies between 1000 and 4000 acres. Pileated Woodpeckers stay with the same mate for life, and a pair member will not abandon a territory even if its mate is lost.

They sleep in roost cavities for the night. Each bird normally sleeps alone, one bird per roost. Although, on some occasions more than one bird occupied a roost. Roosting and nesting in cavities provides protection from the weather and from predators. The roost and nest cavities provide insulation for the Pileated Woodpecker.

Each spring a new nest cavity is excavated. Both the male and female share the work of creating a new nest cavity. The excavation can take the pair up to six weeks to complete. The nest will often have more than one entrance, giving them an extra escape route in case of predators. They will peck the bark around the hole to get sap running. The sap helps keep predators away from the nest. The nest is lined only with woodchips from the excavation. The Pileated Woodpecker has one brood per season. The average clutch size is four white eggs, but can range from one to six. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 18 days.

At the time of hatching, the young are naked and helpless. The Pileated pair will brood the young for the first 7 to 10 days after they hatch. Both parents share in the feeding of the young, by regurgitation. Fledgling usually occurs after 24-30 days depending on location. After Fledging, the young depend on their parents for 2-3 months longer while the parents provide food for them and teach them to acquire their own food. In the fall, the young leave their parents and wander until spring. They will then nest and acquire their own territories.

The Pileated Woodpecker will also nest in nest boxes about 15 feet off the ground. Pileated Woodpeckers have been observed to move to another site any eggs that have fallen out of the nest a rare habit in birds. Once the brood is raised, the Pileated Woodpeckers abandon the hole and will not use it the next year. When abandoned, these holes provide good homes in future years for song birds. Only large-diameter trees have enough girth to contain nest and roost cavities of this species.

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