The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a large, spectacular woodpecker about the size of a crow. Though relatively common in our area, it has large territories so it is not seen as often as one might think — especially given its size and striking coloration. It also tends to be somewhat secretive. This species is often heard before it is seen, its presence in an area frequently revealed by its loud, ringing calls and loud tapping.
The Pileated is mostly black with white wing linings, chin, and neck stripe extending across the face to the base of the bill. Its bright red pointed crest, though, is its showiest and most distinctive feature. Males and females are slightly different in plumage: the male’s red crest extends all the way to the base of the bill whereas the female has a small black patch there. The male also has a red malar, or mustache, stripe while the female’s is black.
Pileateds frequent larger tracts of mature woods. Their population declined with the clearing of eastern forests by European settlers, but their numbers began to recover in the 1920s and 30s. This is largely due to farm abandonment, but also a decrease in their hunting for food, sport, or collections. The Pileated Woodpecker is well-adapted to suburbia, as long as mature trees are available for foraging, nesting, and roosting.
Pileateds dig large roughly rectangular holes, foraging for wood-boring insects in trees and logs. Carpenter ants, both larvae and adults, are often the target of such foraging. The holes dug for nesting and roosting are often vaguely triangular, the slight peak at the top of the hole presumably to accommodate the crest. These cavities, when abandoned, provide important nest sites for species like Wood Ducks and screech-owls.
Unlike most of our birds, which only defend a territory during nesting, Pileateds hold territories year-round. Territory size ranged from about 130 to 400 acres in one study done in Missouri; while in an Oregon study, territories defended by mated pairs averaged an astounding 1,000 acres!
Pileated Woodpeckers need dead trees – you can provide them with critical habitat by sparing sound, mature, dead trees on your property that don’t pose a danger.