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Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus
Common name: 
Pileated Woodpecker

(Information in this Species Page was compiled by Jon Belasco in Biology 220W, Spring 2001, at Penn State New Kensington)

The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest woodpecker in North America. Its size, distinctive plumage, and loud, unmistakable call make it a very recognizable species on our Nature Trail.

Dryocopus pileatus is found throughout most of the eastern, mid-western, and northwestern United States and broadly across southern Canada. It is a year-round (non-migratory) resident within this extensive geographic range. Habitats preferred by D. pileatus especially include late successional coniferous or deciduous forests containing many large, mature trees. Further, D. pileatus prefers nest sites located high in old trees located near streams. A resident pair of D. pileatus on our Nature Trail are most frequently seen along the new Stream Trail among the tall white ash and American beech trees.

An adult male D. pileatus is between 16 and 19 inches long. Its body is mostly back with a broad white line running down each side of its neck. It has white areas on its wings and on its upper throat and chin. The white wing bars are especially noticeable when the bird is in flight. The distinctive red crest is seen in both sexes but is especially prominent on the males as it extends down their forehead. Males also have a red "mustache". Females are a slightly shorter and smaller version of the males with black foreheads and no "mustache."

The feet and claws of D. pileatus  are adapted to grasp the bark of trees as it clamps itself upright on the tree trunk to peck for food or to carve out nest or roost holes. The word "peck" seems far too mild to describe the explosive hammering that these powerful birds inflict on trees! Holes chiseled into the wood of the tree are probed by the bird's short, sticky tongue and a great variety of wood dwelling insects (including wood boring beetle larvae, carpenter ants, termites, and a wide range of caterpillars) are consumed. Further, D. pileatus also feeds on tree sap, acorns, and a variety of fruits. Interestingly, D. pileatus in the western part of its American range feeds primarily on downed logs and snags while in the eastern part of its American range it primarily feeds on live trees.

Range, Roosting and Nesting Sites
Dryocopus pileatus may roam over a very large area. The selection of a home range and the size of that range (which varies from 43 to 450 hectares) are determined primarily by the abundance and quality of the food supply. Old growth forests, as mentioned previously, are preferred primarily because of the probable abundance of insect infested trees and logs.

Roost cavities can be found in living and standing dead trees. Typically, the cavity is a chamber that has been formed by rot and decay into which the woodpecker has chiseled an opening through the still intact bark and surrounding wood. A roost tree may have several of these openings into a single cavity thus providing the woodpecker with escape holes in the event of predator (like raccoons, weasels,  and gray squirrels) intrusion.  Roost cavities are on average located in very large trees 20 to 70 feet above ground level. The hole and the cavity are typically 3 feet deep and lined with soft, insulative vegetation. A breeding pair may have a number of nesting sites in various stages of development and completion. These alternative nest sites may be completed and used in subsequent breeding seasons or may be employed as "back-up" sites in the case of destruction of the primary nest or its tree. Several of these potential nest sites are used as roosting locations for the pair especially during the non-breeding season. A great variety of other animals (including gray squirrels, red squirrels, and many species of birds) utilize abandoned pileated woodpecker tree cavities for nest sites and for winter hibernaculae and year round refugia.

Dryocopus pileatus is quite fastidious in the construction and maintenance of its breeding cavities. Wood chips, discarded nest materials, hatched egg shells, and even feces are removed from the immediate vicinity and deposited elsewhere. This behavior undoubtedly reduces the chance of predator recognition of the nesting site.

Males begin to "drum" for females in the late winter or early spring. This drumming (loud, repetitive hammering on tree trunks and branches) goes on often for hours at a rate of two drumming events per minute as the male flies about within his forested territory. Presumably, the vigor of the male and his strength and endurance are highlighted by these marathon display events. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers become seemingly inseparable both during the breeding season and beyond. They will fly about within their territory in tandem, foraging for food and seeking new or partially constructed nest cavities. This pairing may be mutually advantageous to the birds in that while one bird is conspicuously hammering on a tree to find food, the other  can keep a look out for avian predators like hawks.

If breeding was successful, four, white, translucent eggs will be deposited in the nesting material of the breeding cavity. Removal of these eggs typically results in the laying of new ones in the same nest. Both the male and female incubate the eggs. The eggs are left uncovered only a tiny fraction of the total time from laying until hatching. The eggs hatch in 15 to 18 days. The parents feed the nestlings via regurgitation. In four weeks the nestlings have grown to 75% of the adult's size and are fully feathered. They fledge at about one month of age and are soon flying skillfully. The young follow the parents everywhere at first, and the parents may remain together or they may separate often each taking some of the young with them. Eventually, by the next breeding season anyway, the young will have left their parents and will have taken on an independent existence.

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