The Pileated Woodpecker

By Benjamin P. Burtt


The largest woodpecker in our area is the pileated woodpecker and it is about the size of a crow. It has a brilliant red crest and a black body. There are white areas under the wings that flash when it flies.

The scientific name is based on the Latin word pileatus, meaning crested. Some common names used by early settlers were "great black woodpecker","king of the woods" and "stump breaker".

CAPTION FOR Fig 1: This is the pileated woodpecker. Both male and female have the brilliant red crest. The female, shown on the left, differs by having a black forehead, and the line running back from her bill is black. These pictures were painted by Roger Tory Peterson for his field guide "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

This is not a common bird and is very shy. When you see one, usually it is flying away at high speed. However, it can be attracted to large chunks of suet fastened to a tree. Now and then it will visit a regular suet feeder.

It is generally seen in wooded areas and only now and then in a town or village. Some years ago one did spend a lot of time in Little Falls where it fed on the insects in the remains of a large stump located downtown between the sidewalk and the street.

During the spring and summer it feeds largely on insects and many are fed to its young.

During the fall, it begins to eat plant material. Grapes left over from summer are a favorite food. Seeds and berries then supply about half its food. It eats the seeds from beech, cherry, Virginia
creeper, dogwood and oak.

Carpenter ants burrow into living trees from below ground and establish a colony up through the center of the tree. There are chambers at intervals which act as nesting cavities for the ants.
From the outside the tree appears to be healthy.

CAPTION FOR Fig 2: When you see huge rectangular holes in big live trees like this it means that a pileated woodpecker has located a tree that is being destroyed by carpenter ants . The bird returns until every ant in the tree has been eaten and I hope in time to save the tree. (Photo Courtesy of John DePasquale of Auburn NY.)

In the winter, this woodpecker taps on the tree to disturb the ants and then stops to listen for the sounds of the ants scrambling about. The sounds are loudest at the site of the nest chambers.

There, the pileated woodpecker digs the rectangular holes shown in Figure 2 and removes each ant with his sticky, barbed tongue.

The tongue extends 3.5 inches beyond the tip of the bill. It can reach into a tiny hole and be bent around corners.

Benjamin P. Burtt writes about birds every other week for Stars. Write to him in care of Stars Magazine, P.0. Box 4915, Syracuse, N.Y. 13221; or email ( put "birds" in the subject field).