Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
By Brevin Persike
For Living on the Lake
What do pileateds look like?
Pileated woodpeckers, the largest of all North American woodpeckers, are tall, thin birds, nearly the size of a crow. They range from 16 to 19 inches long and have a wingspan from 26 to 30 inches. Significantly slenderer than a crow of their size, pileated woodpeckers only weigh between 9 and 12 ounces. They are most easily recognized by the bright red crest that points off the back of their heads. They have narrow features and long necks, with long, chisel-like bills. If seen in flight, the underwing of a pileated is white with a black edge.
Outside of looks, pileated woodpeckers are recognizable for their constant drumming of trees. They can deliver a burst of up to 30 taps per second.
Where do pileated woodpeckers live?
Pileated woodpeckers are commonly found in deciduous and mixed woodlands. Since their homes and diets are dependent on vegetation and tree growth, it is important that they find a mature forest or woodland to thrive. They have been known to move into nesting boxes if their region does not have suitable trees for living in. In Wisconsin, pileated woodpeckers live along the Mississippi River valley and throughout the northern part of the state. In North America, they live year-round along the east coast from Florida through Maine and along the Canada-US border. Their populations are especially present in the Great Lakes region.
Pileated woodpeckers thrive among death and decay. In mature forests, these woodpeckers make rounded nest holes in large trees and feast on the insects inside of other decaying trees of varying sizes. They are non-migratory birds and protect their territories year-round from other visitors.
What are their eating habits?
Although these birds are very adaptable, their diet does not require much adaptation. Since pileated woodpeckers are very specific about where they live, their food sources are always available to them. Pileated woodpeckers use their chisel-like bills to create large cavities in decaying trees to root out ant colonies and other insects. They have long, sticky tongues, which help them to reach insects that they otherwise may not be able to get at despite their best efforts at excavation. At times, these woodpeckers eat berries, seeds, and nuts, and in suburban and city locations, they have become adept ground foragers. In the winter, if their food supply runs low, pileateds are known to frequent suet feeders to reach their daily intake of nutrients.
What is their lifecycle?
Woodpeckers pair up and mate for life, producing one summer brood each year. Early in the spring, mating dances, calls and performances are on display, as the pairs begin the courtship process. Once the courtship has been accepted, the male and female work together to find an appropriate tree to build their nest into and begin excavation. By late April or early May, the female lays three to five eggs in the nest. The female incubates the eggs during the day and the male takes over responsibility at night. After 15 to 18 days of incubation, the eggs are ready to hatch. The young are born naked and helpless. For the first three weeks, they are fed regurgitated insects and remain entirely dependent on their parents for food, but by about three weeks, they make their own sounds and calls from within the nest. At about one month old, they begin to leave the nest, but remain dependent on the adults for many more months. Females will move out and be ready to reproduce after about 350 days, but for males, this takes a full year. Depending on the available food sources, healthy woodpeckers can live to be nine years old.
Do woodpeckers offer ecological benefits?
Yes! Because pileated woodpeckers create holes and cavities in trees, they carve out homes for other birds to nest in. Small owls, ducks, bats and flying squirrels rely on the cavities left in trees by these woodpeckers for overnight shelter. While most of those animals can live in small cavities, animals that reside primarily in cavities such as fishers and other large weasels will take over previously used nesting cavities.
Beyond helping other animals, the excavation of old trees helps natural decomposition happen faster. By creating holes and cavities, and hollowing out dead trees, woodpeckers allow for important nutrients to reach the soil and begin the process of decomposition.
What threats do pileated woodpeckers face?
The greatest threat to pileated woodpeckers is habitat loss. Although many woodpeckers are resourceful and have adapted to suburban life, deforestation poses a great threat to their ability to thrive. It can take up to 200 years for a tree to grow large enough for a pileated woodpecker to live inside.
How to make suet feeders and nesting boxes:
Although you can attract pileated woodpeckers with black oil sunflower seeds or peanuts, the best way to attract them is with suet. To make your own suet feeder, use a plastic net-like bag (possibly that onions or potatoes come in at the grocery store). Sprinkle mixed seeds on a piece of wax paper and roll suet in the seeds until it is covered. Shape the suet into a ball and put it into the onion or potato sack. Then tie it off and hang it with string on a branch that can hold its weight. Be careful not to hang it too close to a tree trunk, so it doesn’t attract unwanted attention from other animals.
For a nesting box, it is best to have it out by late February or early March so it can be found prior to breeding season. When making your box, try to make it roughly 24 inches tall, 11½ inches wide, and 11½ inches deep. The hole should be roughly 4 inches in diameter. Fill the box with sawdust, wood shavings and wood chips. When hanging your nesting box, location is key. Hang the box at least 350 feet from a residence and 15 to 20 feet high within a mature forested area.