An increase in woodpecker calls and drumming will soon mark the advance of spring. One of those noise makers will be the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), one of our largest, most dapper forest birds. A native, year-round resident, it’s mostly black with bold white stripes, a triangular flaming red crest, long chisel-like bill, body up to 19 inches long, and broad wings spanning up to 30 inches. Another distinguishing feature is its strong, slow, undulating flight.
Dead Wood Whacker
The “pileated” is widely distributed in wooded areas of North America, including the eastern and northwestern U.S. and southern Canada. They inhabit coniferous, deciduous, or mixed forests, young or old. But must have scattered, large, standing dead trees and decaying, downed wood. Whacking on standing and downed dead wood in search of their main prey, carpenter ants, as well as other insects, is a necessity. The noticeable rectangular holes they create provide valuable feeding areas and cover for other critters like fellow woodpeckers, house wrens, swifts, owls, squirrels, wood ducks, bluebirds, great crested flycatchers, bats, fisher and pine martens.
Fortunately, pileated woodpeckers are now fairly common. Their numbers in the eastern U.S. declined sharply in 18th and 19th centuries due to forest clearing. Since about 1900 however, a gradual comeback has occurred as forests have grown back and matured. They may also be adapting to human proximity and activity. Based on the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the overall population has been steadily increasing since about 1966.
Wuk, Wuk, What?
Pileated woodpeckers stay on their large home ranges, which can be up to 100 acres, all year. Deep resonant drumming, a high clear series of piping calls that lasts several seconds, and shorter loud calls that sound like wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk are used to announce themselves or sound an alarm. Courting includes a display of wing spreading to show off white patches, crest raising, head swinging, and gliding flight.
Pairs mate for life, both excavating their nest and caring for young. Large trees are preferred for the nest which can be up to two feet deep and generally 15 to 80 feet high. A new nest is created each year. Within their hollowed out home, during May to July, they lay three to five eggs, incubate them up to 18 days, then tend nestlings up to 31 days. The oldest pileated, identified from a banding operation in Maryland, was at least 12 years, 11 months old. Known predators include snakes and raptors on nestlings, and fox when feeding on the ground.
In addition to ants, pileateds also eat wood-boring beetle larvae, termites, flies, spruce budworms, caterpillars, cockroaches, grasshoppers, wild fruits and nuts, and seeds and suet from backyard feeders. Their long necks, heavy bills, long, barbed tongues and feet are superbly designed to strike, pulled apart and get deep into woody buffets.
As forest landowners, we can help ensure the continued well-being of our pileated woodpecker population. Most importantly, we can keep our forests as forest, maintain large un-fragmented tracts, manage them for a native diversity of tree, shrubs and forbs, and retain adequate large, standing, live and dead trees and downed wood when harvesting. To additionally create paradise for pileateds, manage for a more closed canopy, relatively open forest floor littered with decaying wood, moist environment that promotes fungal decay and ant, termite, and beetle populations, and broad riparian forest corridors along rivers, streams and lakes to aid dispersal.