Our Biggest, Boldest Woodpecker Really Grabs Your Attention

A loud, tapping sound coming from the forest just might be the work of a woodpecker. If that tapping is really loud, it just may be a pileated woodpecker.

A pileated woodpecker. (Photo courtesy of Demond McDonald)

These woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in North America. It is a distinction they only recently received when another larger woodpecker, the ivory-billed woodpecker, was declared extinct in 2021.

Our largest woodpeckers are about 15 inches to 20 inches long. However, like all birds, they are very lightweight. They only weigh between 8 ounces and 12 ounces. That’s about as much as a can of soup weighs.

Pileated woodpeckers don’t migrate. They live across most of the eastern United States, and they stay in their territory all year long.


Fun facts

  • These woodpeckers are named for their bright red crested heads. The word pileated comes from the Latin word pileatus, which means capped in English.

  • Male and female woodpeckers look mostly the same, but males have a bright red stripe on their cheek that the females do not have.

  • Pileated woodpeckers are our largest woodpecker, but how do they compare to other birds? They are about the same size as a crow.

  • Most woodpeckers make round holes in trees, but pileated woodpeckers are unusual in that they create rectangular holes.

  • One way woodpeckers communicate is by tapping on wood and other structures. This is called drumming, and they do it to attract a mate and establish a territory. Pileated woodpeckers are loud drummers because of their large size. You can hear their drumming from quite a distance away, making it even more difficult to see one when you know it is near.

  • Pileated woodpeckers love ants, especially carpenter ants. That’s their favorite food, but they also eat other ants as well as termites, flies, caterpillars, cockroaches, grasshoppers and wood-boring beetle larvae. While insects are most of their diet, they eat nuts and fruit as well.

  • These woodpeckers live in forests, and they prefer old forests with plenty of dead and fallen trees. Even in newer forested areas, they will look for scattered older trees and dead and fallen trees.

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