13 Interesting Facts About Pileated Woodpeckers


Pileated woodpeckers are some of the most fascinating birds native to North America. 

Large and colorful, with distinctive markings and sounds, count yourself lucky if you see one of these elusive woodland birds.

1. Pileated Woodpeckers Are The Largest In North America

Pileated woodpeckers didn’t always have this claim to fame. 

The Ivory-billed woodpecker used to be the largest, but since the middle of the 20th century has been believed to be extinct. Apparently, there was a sighting in Alabama in 2004, but none have been seen since.

That leaves the pileated woodpecker as the biggest in North America, at 18 inches long.

2. Pileated Woodpeckers Make Rectangular Holes

Contrary to popular belief, pileated woodpeckers don’t actually eat the wood, but instead the insects they find inside.

Pileated woodpeckers peck distinctive rectangular holes into dead wood as they search for the insects they love to eat. The holes range in size from a few inches long to a couple of feet. 

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3. Carpenter Ants Are 60% Of Their Diet

Pileated woodpeckers are pretty picky about their preferred food sources. 

In fact, a whopping 60% of their diet consists of carpenter ants, which they find nesting in decaying trees. They also eat other ants, termites, and wood-boring beetle larvae.

Aside from ants, pileated woodpeckers consume berries, nuts, and fruits, with these making up about 25% of their diet.

4. They Have Barbed Tongues

When a pileated woodpecker finds a nest of larvae or insects in a tree, it can use its long tongue to reach in and get all the good stuff inside. 

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Their tongues even have a barbed end to scrape out every last bit of food! They need every calorie they can find to keep themselves alive in cold weather.

5. Pileated Woodpeckers Have Their Own Territories 

Pileated woodpeckers establish their own territory, with one mated pair defending an area averaging between 130 to 400 acres, although pileated woodpeckers in Oregon each have territories averaging 1,000 acres.

They mark their territories by drumming loudly on hollow trees, and the sound echoes for long distances.

6. They Stay Put All Winter 

While many bird species fly south for the winter, pileated woodpeckers stay in their territory year-round. 

In winter they may visit backyard suet feeders, but usually, they stay in deciduous and coniferous forests throughout the year, where they feed on the larvae of various insects that are hidden within trees through the cold months.

7. They Live In Dead Wood 

Pileated woodpeckers don’t build traditional nests, but instead, create nesting cavities in dead trees. They’ve even been known to excavate cavities in utility poles!

However, in more populated areas they may take up residence in a nesting box if it’s put up in their preferred location, which is 15 to 80 feet above the ground. 

8. They Excavate A New Cavity Every Year

Even though pileated woodpeckers stay in their territory year-round, they still like to move once every year. 

In early spring, they excavate a new cavity. The male starts the process, while the female pitches in as the construction nears completion.

If you’re lucky, you may see wood chips being tossed out of the hole as they work on carving out their new home. Some of the chips are kept to line the nesting cavity, instead of using grass or leaves as other bird species might.

It can take as long as 6 weeks to complete the job, but they undertake it every year. The old cavity doesn’t go to waste, however, as other bird species such as bluebirds or owls will move in once the woodpeckers have vacated the premises.

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9. They Mate For Life

Pileated woodpeckers tend to mate for life, staying with the same partner throughout their usual lifespan of 12 years

If one of the pair dies, its mate will not abandon their territory, but instead will try to attract a new partner from an adjoining territory by drumming. 

Because most nesting pairs produce 3 to 5 young a year, there are always going to be new potential partners nearby.

10. They Have An Elaborate Courtship Ritual

The pileated woodpecker has a particularly interesting courtship routine

First, the male and female attract each other’s attention by drumming. When they get together, they start by tapping their bills together. This can last a few minutes or as long as an hour.

The next stage involves bowing, scraping, and circling sideways around each other, after which they will fly off together to start creating their nesting cavity.

This begins in February or March, depending on the weather. Interestingly, even pairs who have been together for a year or more undertake the same courting ritual every spring. 

11. Mates Sleep Separately 

Even though they’re mated for life, that doesn’t mean that pileated woodpeckers spend all their time together. They don’t even sleep together!

The male and female each have their own sleeping cavity. Males sometimes go back to the previous year’s nesting site at bedtime, or they simply may have 2 separate cavities in the same tree.

Sometimes after the fledglings have left the nest and their parental duties have finished for the year, the pair may split up over the winter until they get back together the next spring to mate and create their new home for the year.

Even while they’re taking care of their young, they have their own jobs that keep them apart for much of the day. 

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Once the female has laid the eggs, it’s dad’s job to incubate them while mom goes out foraging for food. After the young hatch, both parents take turns feeding their voracious appetites. 

12. Their Brain Has A Built-In Helmet

Whether they’re drumming on trees to attract a mate or establish their territory, ripping holes into trees to search for food, or excavating nesting cavities, pileated woodpeckers spend a lot of their time living up to their name: pecking wood. 

That incessant percussion might be expected to cause brain damage, but these birds have a secret weapon. 

Inside their skull, there’s a protective bone that wraps around the brain and protects it from damage, much as a helmet on a hockey player cushions blows.

13. They Were The Inspiration For Woody The Woodpecker

The distinctive upright red crest atop the pileated woodpecker’s head was part of the inspiration for the classic cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker

Even Woody’s call is similar to that of the pileated woodpecker!

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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