For the Birds: Pileated Woodpecker - Largest in North America

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Male Pileated - note red mustache.
Photo by Craig Kerns
By Christine Southwick

We in the Pacific Northwest are enamored with “our” large and impressive black, white, and red Pileated Woodpeckers. In North America only the Imperial and the Ivory-billed woodpeckers were larger, and both of those are presumed extinct.

Pileated Woodpeckers are 16-19 inches tall with a wingspan up to 30 inches across. With their red cap, roller-coaster undulating flight, and usually loud call preceding their arrival at your suet feeder, these are impressive birds.

They are non-migratory, can live to be 12 years old, and stay with the same partner, only replacing a mate due to their partner’s death. They have a very large territory which they defend all year long.

Father and son drinking at birdbath.
Photo by Craig Kerns
Fortunately, as long as humans leave large dead or dying trees (called snags) for Pileated Woodpeckers to use for nesting, and roosting, we should be able to keep these magnificent woodpeckers viable.

Pileated Woodpeckers are found across much of the US and Canada, wherever stands of large diameter deciduous and evergreen trees are found and the dead trees are allowed to remain.

Mother bringing son to suet feeder.
Photo by Craig Kerns
Dead or dying trees are the housing needed for these large birds. Indeed, these birds are so large that the mated pair sleep in separate cavities due to how large a hole would be needed to accommodate two adult Pileated Woodpeckers.

Creating a nesting hole for the three to five offspring can take 3-6 weeks, be 10-24 inches deep, and has an oblong opening. Both parents help make the nest cavity, with the male doing the heavy work, and the female mostly completing the finishing touches.

Carpenter ants are their primary food, followed by beetle larvae, termites, spruce budworm, and other wood boring insects. They help make our forest healthier. They also eat blackberries and elderberries and have been known to eat apples in the wintertime.

Female -note black mustache.
Photo by Yokari Yoshioka
Being insect eaters, they will gladly eat suet all year long, and teach their young to use suet feeders. What a delight it is to watch these awkward punk-headed youngsters first being fed that suet, and then trying to retrieve it themselves.

I call them punk-headed because their topknot sticks up in unruly fashion, and is a pinkish-not-quite red. Next spring their head covering (the pilum) will be that brilliant red. Even the red mustache that identifies the males from the females is that lighter color the first season.

Put out suet where you can see it and watch for these magnificent birds. You will be pleased that you did so.


Anonymous,  November 4, 2023 at 8:17 AM  

Thank you Christine for this great article. ❤️

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