Photo Credit: Jerry Green

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Dryocopus pileatus

STATUS: Breeder. Fairly common in all seasons and regions. Low Conservation Concern.

DESCRIPTION:  The second largest woodpecker species in the United States; thought to be the largest woodpecker until the recent re-discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, a species which had been considered extinct for many years. 

Pileated woodpeckers are about 15 to 17 inches tall with a wingspan of approximately 30 inches.   They have a predominantly black body with red and white on the head and white on the neck and wing linings.   They have a conspicuous white stripe that runs from above and behind the bill, across the face, down the neck, and under the wings that connects with the white wing linings.  The white leading edge of the underside of the wing is very conspicuous in flight.  Both sexes are similar in appearance but males have a red crown and forehead and red in the moustachial stripes.  Females have a gray to yellow-brown forehead with a black moustachial stripe.  Pileated woodpeckers have a heavy silvery gray bill and yellowish feathers over the nostrils. 

The ivory-billed woodpecker, once thought to be extinct, can be easily confused with pileated woodpeckers.  Ivory-billed woodpeckers are slightly larger and have two white stripes on the underside of each wing that are very prominent in flight.  They also have an extensive white area on the top of each wing that is lacking on pileated woodpeckers.  Ivory-billed woodpeckers lack white coloration on the chin and also have an ivory colored bill as opposed to the silvery gray bill of pileated woodpeckers.        

DISTRIBUTION:  Pileated woodpeckers inhabit areas of the Pacific Northwest, much of Canada and the eastern United States.  They are a common, breeding, permanent resident in all wooded areas throughout Alabama. 

HABITAT:  Prefers forested areas (deciduous, coniferous, or mixed) with trees large enough to provide adequate roosting and nesting.  Often associated with mature and old-growth forests but can be found in younger forests if they contain some large trees. 

FEEDING HABITS:   Carpenter ants and beetle larvae are the primary food sources.  They will also eat other insects, fruits, and nuts.  Its large, sharp bill is used to remove bark or excavate rectangular to oval cavities in trees, fallen timber, dead roots, and stumps.  After removing bark or excavating a cavity to expose ants and other insects, the pileated woodpecker uses its extremely long, sticky tongue to reach prey. 

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:   Male and female pileated woodpeckers form long term pair bonds and will defend their territory from intruding individuals.  They will occasionally allow intruders to temporarily use their territory during the winter months. 

Both members of the pair assist with excavating a new nest cavity in a dead tree or limb each year.  The nest cavity may take several weeks to excavate and is usually lined with wood chips.  The female lays three to five glossy white eggs, usually four, that are then incubated by both sexes for up to 18 days.  The male and female also share the brooding duties for seven to 10 days once the eggs have hatched, gathering food and regurgitating it to the young for approximately 24 to 28 days.  After fledging from the nest, young woodpeckers stay with their parents for up to three months while they learn survival skills  and how to forage.      


Grosvenor, Gilbert and Alexander Wetmore.  1939.  The Book of Birds, Volume II.  Published by The National Geographic Society.

Imhof, Thomas A.  1962.  Alabama Birds.  State of Alabama, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Game and Fish Division by the University of Alabama Press

Robbins, Chandler S, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim.  1983.  A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America.  Western Publishing Company.

Author:  Ray Metzler, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries