Just About the Coolest Bird Around: the Pileated Woodpecker

Photo: G. Thompson
Photo: G. Thompson

Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist

Deep in the woods you catch a glimpse of a giant black and white bird flying through the canopy, dodging trees and disappearing behind a wall of big stems. Then you hear it: A jungle like cry from far away, or close by, you can’t tell:   Wikka, Wikka, Wikka Wikka…..   Or loud hammering sounds over there, in the trees, maybe up high, maybe down low. Wow. What was that?

If you were in a forested part of North America, it was probably a pileated (PILL-ee-ay-tid or PIE-lee-ay-tid) woodpecker, the largest living woodpecker in North America and a resident of mature forests. The birds are widespread in nearly all forest types as a result of increases in forest cover over the early and middle 20th century. The pileated is the only bird able to excavate deep into hard, dead wood due to their powerful neck and massive beak. Their deep square/oval excavations on trees and logs are quite distinctive, giving us solid evidence of where this remarkable critter lives.

Photo: K. Bevis
Photo: K. Bevis

Their presence profoundly influences and benefits the habitat of other animals, making them a keystone ecological species. Trees are basically big cylinders of dead wood and provide well insulated cover for nesting and resting animals – pileated excavations allow other animals to access the middle of the dead stem.

Like all woodpeckers, pileateds make cavities as a part of their courtship and nesting behavior. Each year new cavities are created and old ones are renovated. They lay 4 to 6 eggs each year, with both males and females caring for the young. They are devoted parents and the best time to see them is when they’re travelling to and from the nest cavity to feed their young.

Whether the cavities are new or old, once the pileated family is gone they’re used as nests and roosts by many other species including barred owls, wood ducks, flying squirrels, goldeneye ducks, flammulated owls, Douglas squirrels, bats and martens.

Live trees with heart rot are particularly excellent habitat for pileateds, as they can excavate into the center and hollow it out. Many pileated roost trees occur in hollow cedars in our forests, where multiple entrances are used to access the hollow core where the birds roost. Big trees make the best roosts because they can accommodate the birds’ 20-inch cavity depths.

The pileated woodpecker’s primary food source is carpenter ants. The ants form long-term colonies in the dead wood core of a live tree and our woodpecker whacks a big square hole into the tree to get them. These same holes can be used for many years. Carpenter ants are important insects in the forest ecosystem, so these trees are significant habitats at multiple levels.

Once last year I followed a deep chopping sound down into a draw while visiting a tree farm in Southwest Washington. The sound was below me on the slope, but because it was down in the brush I didn’t think it could be a woodpecker. Then I spotted movement and as I crept close I saw a pileated busily chopping on a leaning alder, 8” diameter, dead, soft, and likely full of insect larvae. Chips flew everywhere as the big black and white bird’s red crest bobbed in and out, whacking big chunks out of the snag, only a foot or two off of the ground. It was almost a down log. I got to within 15 yards and had a great view through my binoculars, when Woody woodpecker noticed me, he thought something was amiss and flew away.

This remarkable bird will tolerate human presence, but must have adequate numbers of big, dead woody structures nearby for nesting and roosting to establish and maintain successful territories. They sometimes occur in suburban settings, including backyards and parks. Home ranges have been shown to be somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 acres, (1.5 to 7 square miles), so this big powerful flier is able to cover a lot of ground between feeding and roosting areas. Within that big territory, however, there must be some big dead wood, so please protect the dead wood on your property.

And in case you were wondering, Woody Woodpecker was indeed inspired by the pileated woodpecker. If you want to know more about this or other birds, check out All About Birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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