Picture walks: North America’s largest woodpecker

By Jeanne Church

One of the most exciting birds for me to find and photograph is the pileated woodpecker. It is the largest North American woodpecker and one of the biggest, most striking birds on the continent! It has a wingspan of nearly thirty inches, a flaming red triangular crest that sweeps off the back of its head, and a long chisel-like beak.

This impressive looking bird earned its name from that flashy red crest that covers its pileum, or top of its head. The word ‘pileated’ is the adjective form of the word. But how is it pronounced? Is it PIE-lee-ay-tid, PILL-eee-ay-tid, or PEE-lee-ay-tid? I have heard all three versions. After doing a little research on the subject, it seems that all three pronunciations are acceptable, but the PIE-lee-ay-tid form more closely mimics the original etymology of the word, which is spoken with the long “I” sound.

The pileated woodpecker has often received credit for inspiring the creation of the well-known, mid-20th century cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker. But Woody was actually inspired by an acorn woodpecker that had been drumming away persistently on the honeymoon cabin of Walter Lantz, Woody’s creator. Interestingly, though, Woody’s shaggy red top-knot more closely resembles that of a pileated woodpecker than an acorn woodpecker. Many people also find that Woody’s characteristic laugh sounds more like the pileated than the acorn, but that’s still up for debate. Maybe Woody is just the best of both birds!

Even if you’ve never seen a pileated woodpecker, you’ve probably heard one drumming on a hollow tree, or seen evidence of its drilling on a dead or dying tree. The drumming sound made by a pileated woodpecker is loud and persistent. It is an effective way for the bird to establish territory and to attract a mate. When drumming, the pileated woodpecker slams its beak into a tree about 17 times per second with up to 1,200g’s of force—far surpassing the amount that would cause a concussion in human beings!

When pileated woodpeckers aren’t busy drumming, they’re using those mighty chisel-like beaks to drill for carpenter ants, beetles, termites, and other insects, or to carve out a nesting site. You’ve probably seen their insect excavation holes, but maybe didn’t realize they were made by a pileated woodpecker. The holes are sometimes at eye-level, and are always rectangular! The holes that the pileated woodpecker makes for a nest, on the other hand, are oval and usually 50 to 80 feet off the ground in a large, dead tree.

The nest holes that the pileated woodpecker makes take three to six weeks to complete and are rarely reused. But those abandoned nest cavities, which can be up to 24 inches deep, will not go to waste. Instead, they will provide crucial nesting or roosting places for many other species including wood ducks, bluebirds, screech-owls, bats, raccoons, and other mammals. You’ll know it’s a pileated woodpecker’s nest by the oblong shape of the entrance. Most other woodpeckers have round entrance holes.

The pileated woodpecker has adapted well to living among us in both urban and suburban habitats– as long as there are enough mature trees, snags and fallen logs for nesting and feeding. If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them alone if it is safe to do so. Those dead trees may attract pileated woodpeckers as well as other birds that like to forage, roost, or nest in them.

Your best chance for seeing a pileated woodpecker at your backyard feeder is during the fall and winter months. By that time of year, the pileated woodpecker is searching for nuts and seeds to supplement its diet of ants and other insects. Their favorite backyard treat is suet cakes, but they will also eat peanuts, mealworms, and black oil sunflower seeds.

Keep your binoculars handy in the upcoming months and enjoy your search for North America’s largest woodpecker!

One thought on “Picture walks: North America’s largest woodpecker

  1. Wonderful blog, Jeanne! I learn so much from you about birds. Your writing is splendid! Thank you for it and your glorious photographs. Your blogs bring me joy! Your friend, Jen

Leave a Reply