The Pileated woodpecker is a black, red-crested woodpecker that lives in North America. It is the 3rd largest woodpecker globally after the Great slaty woodpecker in Southeast Asia and the Black Woodpecker of Europe. “Pileated” comes from the Latin pileatus, which means “capped”.
These birds reside in forests with lots of dead trees, where they build their nests by hollowing a hole in the wood by pecking. They play a crucial role in their environment as the nests they build and leave behind are often later used as homes by other species like raccoons, songbirds, and owls.
Size: Length: 16 to 19 in (40 to 49 cm)
Weight: Male: 11 oz (300 g)Female: 9.0 oz (256 g)
Wingspan: 26 to 30 in (66 to 75 cm)
Body and Coloration: These woodpeckers are predominantly black, with white stripes on their faces and necks. They have a distinguishable flaming-red crest. Males have a red line on the cheek from their bill to their throats. This line is black in the female. While flying, the white underwings become clearly visible.
This woodpecker lives across Canada, the eastern United States, and certain parts of the Pacific Coast.
They make their nests by excavating a hole in large, standing dead trees like hardwood. The forests where these trees grow include evergreen, deciduous, and or a mix of both. These woodpeckers prefer forests with a decent supply of moisture.
Pileated woodpeckers mainly feed on carpenter ants. Other insects consumed include other ants, caterpillars, cockroaches, flies, grasshoppers, spruce budworms, termites, and woodboring beetle larvae. They also eat fruits, nuts, and berries, including the dangerous poison ivy berry.
These birds are relatively long-lived, averaging 9-12 years. The oldest recorded Pileated woodpecker was 12 years and 11 months old.
Like other woodpeckers, they are known for the drumming sounds they make when they rapidly peck on a tree. Drumming takes place on hollow trees so that a clear sound resonates, following a pattern of a slow, deep rolling every 3 seconds. They do this not only to carve a nest but also to proclaim territory, sound an alarm, and attract a mate.
They make a series of piping calls lasting several seconds, similar to that of a Northern Flicker’s rattling call. The difference is in its greater resonance and uneven tone, with the emphasis on certain notes or overall rhythm changing during a call. Pileated Woodpeckers also make shorter sounds like wuk, wuk, or cuk, cuk to settle a boundary dispute or provide a warning.
These woodpeckers are territorial and do not migrate. Once a pair has chosen a region to stay in, they will defend it aggressively, though they become a bit lenient during the winter. This aggression presents itself in the form of calling and chasing at other birds, striking with their wings, and jabbing at them with their bills.
While using their beaks, they strike at one area linearly and repeatedly to prevent concussing themselves.
Predatory birds attack adults like bald eagles, barred owls, Cooper’s hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, northern goshawks, red-shouldered hawks, and red-tailed hawks. Eggs are taken away by American martens, gray foxes, rat snakes, squirrels, and weasels.
Similar to other woodpeckers, to effectively chip away at hardwood, their beak has a dense, bony layer. Also, the upper beak is longer than the lower beak.
Their skulls have spongy bones arranged in the form of a plate, and the cranium is tightly packed with little space between the brain and skull. This serves as a helmet, preventing and protecting their brain from getting damaged by the blows it receives when the woodpecker pecks at a high speed.
Their eyes have very limited maneuverability. While seemingly a disadvantage, given the speeds at which they peck at hard surfaces, it’s a necessity to keep their eyeballs in their sockets.
The tongue of these birds is actually a bone called the hyoid, which wraps around the brain to provide extra shock absorption.
Mating and Reproduction
Pairs are monogamous, bonding for life and staying together all year long. They perform a courtship dance consisting of one of them bowing, scraping, and stepping sideways in a circle around the other. They excavate nest cavities from March to April.
There are around four eggs in a single clutch. A rare distinction of this species is that they will move their eggs from one nest to another if their first tree falls for some reason. During the day, both parents keep the eggs warm by sitting on them, while the male does it at night. Once they hatch after two weeks, the parents feed the baby woodpeckers. The juvenile pileated woodpeckers fledge when they are a month old.
As per the IUCN, the Pileated Woodpecker is “Least Concern” or “LC” and are currently not endangered. This is because they have successfully adapted to the presence of humans. However, these birds sometimes end up damaging trees and private property like homes and fences, so they are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act, despite being non-migratory birds.
The character of Woody Woodpecker was based on a Pileated woodpecker.
Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers found in the extant United States. The only exception may have been the ivory-billed woodpecker, which as of 2022 is expected to be declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.