The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 2, 2003


Biodiversity Corner: Pileated Woodpecker

Name: Dryocopus pileatus, or Pileated Woodpecker, a.k.a. Northern Pileated Woodpecker. The species name, pileatus, means crested.

Photo by Skip Saunders

When and where seen: The male in the photo is a regular visitor to the wooded part of Skip Saunders' yard on Canterbury Court. It usually visits early in the day between 3 to 5 hours after sunrise. One day while Skip was in his office, it landed on the windowsill affording him a very rare close-up look. Ken Harte has a pair that routinely visit his suet feeder. Ken once had five different species of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated and flicker) come to his feeder in the same hour.

Distinguishing characteristics: "The great loose hair-like scarlet crest flowed in the sun and his scarlet mustache added to his noble and savage appearance." A BIG woodpecker. Of the 22 species of woodpeckers in North America, the pileated is by far the largest. It is 16.5 inches long from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail. (This newspaper page is 17 inches from top to bottom.) The body is black and the head has a very prominent red crest. White markings on the side of the face run down the neck. White areas on the undersides of the wings are easily noticed in flight. The bill is chisel-shaped. The male has a red 'mustache' — quite obvious in the color version of Skip's photo which you can see at - select 'features' then scroll.

Habitat: The pileated woodpecker is a forest-dweller living almost exclusively within the canopy of mature forests. It is an alert and wary bird which is able to escape observation despite its large size. It nests in tree cavities where it will have a clutch of 3 to 4 white eggs. Trees selected for nesting include oak, maple, birch, beech, hemlock, pine and others. A new nest is usually drilled for each brood, perhaps in the same tree as in prior years. The nest hole is round. The characteristic oblong holes made when drilling for food are not used for nesting. The pileated woodpecker's diet consists mainly of insects supplemented with berries and acorns. Its favorite food is carpenter ants.

Drumming: Like all woodpeckers, the pileated will tap its bill rapidly against a tree making a drumming sound that is both a territorial statement and a mating call. A big powerful drumming sound may be coming from a pileated but could be from a smaller woodpecker with a very resonant drumming post. In what sounds like an account of a drummer in a rock band, Ernest Vickers (1915) reported the following pileated performance: "With such energy did he hammer that his whole body shook and his wings quivered. He fairly hurled himself wildly at it."

Population: The two largest bird monitoring programs in North America are the Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Count. Sibley reports that the Breeding Bird Survey data show an increase in the number of pileated woodpeckers. The Carlisle component of the Christmas Bird Count shows an upward trend over 30 years.

References: David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior; Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds, a 21-volume series compiled from 1919 —1968, many chapters are available as an electronic book — findable with Google; Ken Harte, Christmas Bird Count chart.

Submissions to the biodiversity corner are invited from all nature lovers. Make like the enthusiastic pileated woodpecker and 'fairly throw yourself wildly' into writing up an account. Send it to or Kay Fairweather, 392 School St, Carlisle, MA 01741.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito