Pileated Woodpeckers

April Nature Notes: Illinois' largest woodpecker
          Exhibiting a vivid red crest, crow-like size of 17 inches tall, and unforgettable, resonate drumming, the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, can be distinguished from other woodpeckers in Illinois from not only its physical characteristics but also by the evidence it leaves behind in the forest.          

Most often this woodpecker tries to stay out of sight, making close observation difficult. Adults are mostly black, with the exception of the crest and a white stripe that runs across both sides of the face and down the neck. The stripes connect to a large white patch on the underside of each wing. These patches can be seen during the bird’s undulating flight. To differentiate between sexes, males have a red line that runs from the back of the bill to the throat.          

Pileated woodpeckers spend most of their time foraging on dead trees or fallen logs. They pry off loose bark and chip out deep rectangular or oval shaped holes into the wood. Carpenter ants are the staple component of their diet; however a meal also may consist of other insects, beetle larvae, berries, fruits or nuts. Breeding season begins in March with male courtship displays and an increase in territorial drumming and calling. Males and females collaborate in excavating a nesting cavity in dead wood, 15-70 feet above ground. Having only one brood per year, the female’s clutch usually consists of three to five eggs. Parents share in incubating the eggs and raising the young.          

Nesting cavities are typically used once, resulting in new holes being created each year. The abandoned cavities provide many other organisms with shelter, nesting sites and escape from predators.          

Now grab your binoculars and head to the woods. Look for this species in its preferred habitat of deciduous or mixed older-growth forests. But remember, you will usually hear the pileated before you see it.          


Jacque Hallam, site interpreter, Beall Woods State Natural Area 
By: Jacque Hallam