10 Fun Facts About the Pileated Woodpecker

Sep 9, 2022 | The Sandpiper

The Pileated Woodpecker is a fabulous gateway species into birding—especially for young kids. Large and easy to observe without binoculars, the Pileated is native to Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and the eastern half of the United States. The impressive bird is best known for its distinctive and prominent red crest, which contrasts sharply with its white-and-black face striping, black body, and black wings with white patches. Glimpsing one of these birds in the wild will leave anyone in awe, but here are some fun facts that will make you further appreciate this charismatic species. 

1.) Excluding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which is largely believed to be extinct, 22 woodpecker species call North America home. The Pileated is the largest living woodpecker in North America—nearly three times taller than the petite Downy Woodpecker. 

2.) Pileated Woodpeckers experienced huge population declines in the eastern United States in the 18th and 19th centuries due to habitat loss caused by the clearing of forests for agriculture and timber harvesting. The population only started to recover in the 1920s with state and federal protection, combined with forest regrowth and the woodpecker’s ability to exploit suburban and urban areas. Their numbers have increased steadily since the 1960s, to an estimated 2.6 million birds today. 

3.) Pileated pairs historically may have required an area as large as 300 to 900 acres to support nestlings, especially in the West, but some pairs now raise young on fewer than 150 acres. A sure sign that the resilient woodpecker is continuing to adapt: A pair recently nested in a 74-acre state forest on Staten Island in New York City.

4.) Pileated Woodpeckers nest almost exclusively in snags, or standing dead trees. They are the bird’s home, nursery, and cafeteria. Pileateds prefer deciduous and coniferous forests with larger, old growth trees that can support their spacious cavities. A dead limb on a living tree or a utility pole will also suffice—a creative use to survive in urban environments.

5.) They rarely nest in the same tree hollow twice. The strong bill of the Pileated Woodpecker chisels a hole in dead (and, occasionally, live) wood to create a home to raise young. Cavity-nesting ducks that can’t excavate their own holes, such as Wood Ducks, rely on these abandoned Pileated Woodpecker cavities to breed. Consider leaving large, dead trees up to give Pileated Woodpeckers—and maybe even their successors—a chance to breed in your backyard.

6.) The species earns its common and species name, pileatus, from the flashy red crest that covers the pileum, or top of the bird’s head. Both males and females sport this distinctive red crest, but the male’s extends further toward the bill.

7.) Pileated Woodpeckers drum slowly, accelerating and then trailing off at the end, distinguishing them from most other woodpeckers that drum at a steady rate. They can drum close to 17 beats per second and will perform 10 to 30 beats before they take a break. This behavior helps them defend territories and attract mates as a part of courtship displays. However, louder drumming doesn’t conclusively identify a Pileated Woodpecker: A tiny Downy Woodpecker’s drumming can be deceptively loud if it’s hammering away on a hollowed-out limb. 

8.) There’s no mistaking a Pileated Woodpecker’s call—their loud, escalating shrieks bring to mind a maniacal laugh and can be heard from a distance. The birds also make a rapid series of cuk-cuk-cuk sounds in flight and when landing. Territorial calls—useful for alerting other woodpeckers that they’ve entered a Pileated’s turf—are a higher-pitched version of this call. The laugh and appearance of the Pileated is often cited as the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, but this seems to be inaccurate; credit apparently goes to the Acorn Woodpecker.

9.) Compared to other woodpecker species, Pileated Woodpeckers prefer to forage in dying and decaying dead trees, using their bills to chisel distinctive rectangular holes in search of prey. Though carpenter ants make up more than half of their diet, Pileated Woodpeckers also eat nuts and fruits. Pileated Woodpecker numbers increase in areas with widespread emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills ash trees, suggesting that Pileated Woodpeckers could be one of the strongest lines of defense to control non-native forest pests. 

10.) PIE-lee-ay-tid or PILL-ee-ay-tid? You might have heard this bird’s name pronounced both ways. While the former is technically correct, many people use the latter and both have become commonly accepted in the bird world. So don’t fret: Use whichever you prefer, and just know that this is not the last confusing bird name you’ll encounter.

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