Dec 25, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Species Profile: Pileated Woodpecker

North America's largest common woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker is a magnificent, flashy, loud, but shy bird. The word "pileated" is Latin for "crested," a reference to this woodpecker's remarkable crest.
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Those who hold out hope for the potentially rediscovered 24-inch ivory-billed woodpecker term the 19-inch pileated the "largest commonly seen" woodpecker in North America. Its odd name is Latin for "crested," and may be pronounced with a long or short i (pill-lee-ate-ed or pie-lee-ate-ed). This slaty-black, white, and red crow-sized woodpecker is a powerful excavator, digging deep into standing or fallen dead wood as it makes its characteristic, rectangular chambers in search of wood-boring beetle larvae and carpenter ants. Three-quarters of its diet is insects, mostly ants; look for its cylindrical black-and-white droppings, composed largely of carpenter ant skulls, beneath trees where it has been working. In contrast to its squarish feeding holes, the pileated's nest hole is usually round or roughly triangular and is often excavated in a bleached, barkless dead stub. Four eggs are incubated by the male and female for 18 days. The young, somewhat duller, butch-crested versions of their mother, fledge at 24 to 30 days. They are dependent on their parents until fall, following them and learning to find food. Surprisingly light for their size, pileateds may be seen dangling, titmouse-style, in branches of grape, smilax, poison ivy, and sumac as they pluck fruit.

Quite flickerlike, the pileated's laughing call is louder, faster, and fades toward the end, avoiding the monotony of its smaller relative's long call. Its drum roll, too, builds, then fades toward the end. At nesting time, a variety of loud, flickerlike calls can be heard, especially a woik-woik yelp that is given near roost and nest holes.

Although it needs mature trees for nesting, the pileated forages frequently in younger, cutover and recovering forestland. As a species, it has adapted well to the ever-changing North American forest age structure, enjoying a rebound since many farms have been abandoned and allowed to grow over; it is now common where it was absent 50 years ago. A nonmigratory, monogamous permanent resident, pileated woodpeckers may make surprisingly bold forays into suburban yards for the fruit of ornamental plantings, or to large suet feeders that are well-anchored on trees near woodland edges. Birds thus lured in have also taken meat scraps, hamburger, cracked corn, and nutmeats.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »



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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018