The Majestic Pileated Woodpecker

Long before you see a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus piteatus) in the forest you will more than likely hear the deep, loud drumming or the unmistakable shrill call of this large, striking bird. Pileated, from the Latin piteatus means "capped". These birds have a very distinctive, flaming red crest on the top of their heads. The males' crest extends down to the base of his bill and he also has a red mustache, better known as a malar stripe. The females' crest ends approximately halfway down her forehead and she does not have a malar stripe.


Here at the Robert L. Bowles Nature Centre we have listened and watched a couple of pileated woodpeckers thumping on a decaying limb of a maple tree looking for insects, grubs, beetle larvae and their favorite prey, carpenter ants. One is clearly a juvenile but we can't get close enough to see if they are males or females. (We definitely need a new camera!)


Pileated woodpeckers mate for life and are non-migratory birds. They are cavity nesters excavating large holes in dead trees and limbs. This work is mainly carried out by the male. These nests are only used once and then abandoned when the young leave. These large cavities provide important shelter for other species like songbirds, owls and bats for nesting and roosting. As well, some mammals may use the cavity for shelter and smaller birds are attracted to the holes looking for insects.


Many people do not realize that by the time a woodpecker finds a tree and begins digging it out, looking for food, the tree is already in a state of decay. Some want to blame the woodpecker for the demise of their favorite tree but the tree was in big trouble long before the woodpecker arrived.


It's intriguing when we begin to understand how the pileated woodpecker's interaction with the trees affects and benefits other birds and mammals. It's important that their habitat be protected. Cutting and clearing mature trees and removing deadwood from the forest does not help our feathered friends. Let's do our part and leave forested areas just the way we find them. This will help to ensure pileated woodpeckers continue to thrive.


The photos below are taken from the internet and are exceptional for showing the distinguishable features between male and female pileated woodpeckers.


Male Pileated Woodpecker

Crest extends down to base of bill

Red mustache/malar stripe



Female Pileated Woodpecker

Crest extends halfway down forehead

No malar stripe






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