The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)


Figure 1 Pileated woodpecker looking for tasty treats

Figure 1 Pileated woodpecker looking for tasty treats

Time for a bit of info on one of our past #BeakoftheWeek candidates…

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in North America, being about the same size as a crow.  It is resident in coniferous, deciduous and mixed woodlands in Canada and the USA (see Xeno Canto link later for distribution map).  They are seen as a keystone species, playing a crucial role in forest ecosystems.  Amongst other things they excavate holes that can be used by other birds and mammals to nest in, as well as controlling some bug species populations.

When you go down to the woods today you may hear the thud thud thud of a woodpecker as it drums on a tree.  They are drumming in order to attract mates or advertise their territory.  If you or I were to repeatedly bang our head against something we’d get a pretty nasty headache, or even worse, brain damage.  The woodpecker is drumming away at a top speed of 6-7  metres a second, with a deceleration of 1000 g, so why don’t woodpeckers suffer the same fate?  Fortunately some lovely people have looked into this. The woodpecker’s skull is built in such a way so as to absorb the shock of the impact, something scientists are hoping will allow us to develop technology to help prevention of head injuries in people.  Here is a great link that explains this in greater depth.

Check out this video to see one of these guys looking for tasty treats.  It’d be great to see a slow motion video of the deceleration they experience, but I haven’t managed to track one down.  Carpenter ants make up the majority of this species diet, and given the structural damage these ants can do, it is a good job some of them are being taken out of the equation.

Pileated woodpecker (right) with downy woodpecker.

Pileated woodpecker (right) with downy woodpecker.

Pairs in this species defend their territory year round.  They could be seen as modern day parents, with the male getting hands on in all aspects of parental care.  The males don’t rest on their laurels, after doing most of the nest building, they also help with incubating the eggs, of which there is an average clutch size of four. With the male incubating at night and then sharing the responsibility with the female throughout the day.  Feeding duties are also shared between the parents.

If you are a fan of cuteness, then this video of some chicks being fed is for you.  The chicks are altricial, and leave the nest after about 25-30 days.

You’ll be pleased to know that according to the IUCN redlist, this species is of least concern.

Apparently these guys are where Woody got his voice

Apparently these guys are where Woody got his voice

So, down to the main reason you are reading this blog article.  Woody woodpecker’s characteristic laugh is supposed to have originated from this species, I think some artistic licence may have been taken here, but you can almost hear woody himself when listening to these guys on  Xeno Canto.  If you want to do a comparison, here’s woody after getting up to some mischief.



BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Hylatomus pileatus. Downloaded from on 08/05/2015.

Bull, Evelyn L. and Jerome A. Jackson. 2011. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: on 08/05/2015.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <>. Downloaded on 08 May 2015.

Winkler, H. & Christie, D.A. (2002). Pileated Woodpecker (Hylatomus pileatus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 8 May 2015).

Images and videos

Pilieated woodpecker” from Freshwater and Marine Image Bank is licensed under Public Domain.

Martyn Stewart. 2013. Pileated woodpecker. [Online]. [25/05/2015]. Available from: