Species of the Month – Pileated Woodpecker – February 2024

Species of the Month: Pileated Woodpecker

[Photo: Male Pileated Woodpecker – Springwater Conservation Area, Elgin County, taken by Matthew Palarchio]
Cold, sunny February days often make for great hikes; some merits of winter hiking include the crisp air, better wildlife photography (due to lack of foliage on hardwood trees) and a lack of mosquitos, something ubiquitous to Norfolk County in the summer months. Considering wildlife, Norfolk’s forests are often quite silent in the winter, apart from the calls of few common songbirds (Chickadees, Nuthatches, Juncos, Cardinals etc.), and the drumming woodpeckers, which regularly interrupts the usual silence of winter hikes. I’ll be sharing some information on the life history, ecology, and identification tips of the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), our most conspicuous woodpecker species. 

 The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is one of seven woodpecker species native to the Great Lakes Region (the other woodpeckers are the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, and Black-backed Woodpecker). Of all these species, Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest (40 cm – 49 cm), substantially larger than the next largest species, the Northern Flicker (~35 cm). Most individuals are non-migratory, remaining in the same breeding territory throughout the entire year. Similarly to other native woodpeckers species, Pileated Woodpeckers are generally monogamous, forming strong pair-bonds that last multiple breeding seasons. 

Pileated woodpeckers have a black underside and upperside, with a primarily white face and white band stretching from the neck along the margin of the wing. The head is triangular, with a distinctive crest and black eyeline. Males and females are very similar in coloration, but differ in two key aspects. On male Pileated Woodpeckers, the moustachial stripe (adjacent to the bill) is red, whereas females have black moustachial stripes. In addition, male Pileated woodpeckers have a completely red forehead that extends directly to the bill. On female Pileated Woodpeckers, the red on the forehead extends partially to the forehead, but is divided from the bill by a noticeable black patch. 

The primary food source of Pileated Woodpeckers are ants and insect larvae (especially in the winter, when most ant colonies are dormant). Carpenter ants in particular are a prized food source for Pileated woodpeckers. They’ll also consume various types of fleshy fruit, such as sumac fruits, greenbrier fruits, blackberries, poison ivy berries, dogwood berries and winterberries. 

Pileated woodpeckers will create large cavities in trees by excavating a hole using their bills. These tree cavities are used for foraging, roosting and breeding activities. Tree cavities used for breeding often have circular openings, while cavities utilized for roosting or feeding can be oval to irregular-shaped. Pileated woodpeckers usually breed in snags (standing dead trees). In Norfolk County, preferred nesting trees include Beeches, Ashes, Hickories, Maples, Oaks and Tuliptrees. Pileated woodpeckers will rarely utilize the same nesting cavity in subsequent breeding seasons, though many other animal species utilize old nesting cavities utilized by Pileated Woodpeckers – these include ducks (Mergansers, Wood Duck, Goldeneyes and Buffleheads), owls, bats and squirrels. 

[L-R: Female Pileated Woodpecker – Algoma District, Male Pileated Woodpecker – Springwater Conservation Area, Elgin County, Photo credit: Matthew Palarchio]

The Pileated Woodpecker’s preferred habitat is mature deciduous forests, which includes many upland, bottomland riparian, and swamp forest types. Pileated Woodpeckers can also be found in Oak Savannas (such as those at St. Williams Conservation Reserve and Turkey Point), and suburban residential areas with large trees. In Norfolk County, the best areas for Pileated Woodpecker observation are mature forests with many large, old trees. The most well-known areas include Springwater Conservation Area and Backus Woods; both sites are large forests dominated by upland mesophytic Sugar Maple – Beech strands. Suitable habitat for Pileated Woodpeckers occur on many of Long Point Basin Land Trust’s nature preserves including Jackson-Gunn Old-Growth Forest, Arthur Langford Nature Reserve, Stackhouse Forest Sanctuary, Trout Creek Nature Reserve, Fisher’s Creek Nature Reserve, and Stead Family Scientific Reserve. 

Written By: 

Matthew Palarchio, Honour’s BSc in Environmental Science candidate, Western University

Jackie Ellefsen

Senior Development Manager