Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Category: Birds

The pileated woodpecker is a significant component of a forest environment. It is often referred to as a "keystone species" because it creates nesting cavities used by other forest wildlife species, such as Barrow’s goldeneye and flammulated owl The availability of large snags (standing dead trees) and large decaying live trees used for nesting and roosting by pileated woodpeckers has declined in many areas as a result of forest conversion (such as the removal of forest for urban development) and timber management practices,

Description and Range

Physical description

The pileated woodpecker is a very large forest woodpecker, almost 17 inches in length. The male has a red, tufted cap, a red “moustache,” and its body is mostly black with white striping on the face; white wing-lining is observable in flight. The female has the same markings as the male except for a slightly smaller red cap and no “red moustache.” This woodpecker has a loud, high-pitched, repetitive call—wuka wuka wuka wuka wuka.

Ecology and life history

Pileated woodpeckers inhabit mature and old-growth forests, and second-growth forests with  snags and fallen trees. These woodpeckers are also urban and suburban residents in some developing areas throughout Washington. In these areas they occupy remnant patches of forest, parks, and green-belts.

In western Oregon and western Washington, they may use younger forests (<40 years old) as foraging habitat. The woodpeckers forage in forests containing large trees and snags that support abundant insect prey associated with dead and dying wood. Large rectangular/oval excavations in snags are indicative of pileated woodpecker foraging. In Oregon and Washington, prey consists of carpenter and thatching ants (Hymenoptera), beetle larvae (Coleoptera), termites (Isoptera), and other insects.

Throughout their range, pileated woodpeckers use large snags and large decaying live trees for nesting and roosting, features that are more abundant in older forests. Preferred nest tree species and characteristics vary to some degree among different regions of the northwest. Pileated woodpeckers excavate large nest cavities in snags or large decaying live trees, and wood chips from their excavations are typically found on the cavity floor and at the base of trees. 

A male pileated woodpecker clinging to a snag with young in the nest peering out of nest cavity
Photo by Mick Thompson - Creative Commons License 2.0
A male pileated woodpecker on a snag with its young in the nest cavity.

Most nest cavities are observed in hard snags (sound wood) with intact bark and broken tops, or live trees with dead tops. During the breeding season, birds may start a number of cavity excavations, but only complete one nest cavity. The breeding and nesting periods of the pileated woodpecker extends from late March to early July. Pileated woodpeckers lay 1 to 6 eggs/clutch; the eggs are white in coloration and are about 1.3 inches in length and 1 inch in breadth.

Pileated woodpeckers have large home ranges within which they meet their life requisites. Studies within the Pacific Northwest indicate that home range size may vary from 1000 acres to over 2000 acres.

Known predators include the northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, American martin, and gray fox.

Geographic range

Pileated woodpeckers are year-round residents from northern British Columbia, across Canada to Nova Scotia, south through central California, Idaho, Montana, eastern Kansas, the Gulf Coast and Florida. The Washington range encompasses the forested areas of the state.

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer.


Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

Timber harvest that includes the removal of defective and dead trees can significantly impact pileated woodpecker habitat. The removal of large snags, large decaying live trees and downed woody debris of the appropriate species, size, and decay class eliminates nest and roost sites and foraging habitat. Intensively managed forests typically do not retain these habitat features. However, state and federal forest management guidelines call for the retention of a specified number of wildlife trees during timber harvest.

Bull and Jackson (1995) suggest that fragmentation of forested habitat may lead to reduced population density and increased vulnerability to predation as birds are forced to fly between fragmented forested stands; however, information on predation effects is currently lacking.

The amount of forest retained in the suburban and urbanizing environment will influence the degree to which an area is used by pileated woodpeckers for foraging and reproduction. If the collective area of these retained forest tracts is large enough, suburban and other urbanizing environments could support pileated woodpeckers. 

See PHS Program management recommendations for more information about actions needed to address the threats to this species. NOTE: Pileated woodpecker was removed from Priority Habitat Species List in 2021.



Aubry, K. B., and C. M. Raley. 1996. Ecology of pileated woodpeckers in managed landscapes on the Olympic Peninsula. Annual Report, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Olympia, Washington, USA.

____, and ____. 2002a. The pileated woodpecker as a keystone habitat modifier in the Pacific Northwest. Pages 257-274 in W. F. Laudenslayer, Jr., P. J. Shea, B. E. Valentine, C. P. Weatherspoon, and T. E. Lisle, technical coordinators. Proceedings of the Symposium on the Ecology and Management of Dead Wood in Western Forests. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-181, Berkeley, California, USA.

____, and ____. 2002b. Selection of nest and roost trees by pileated woodpeckers in coastal forests of Washington. Journal of Wildlife Management 66:392-406.

Brown, E. R., technical editor. 1985. Management of wildlife and fish habitats in forests of western Oregon and Washington. USDA Forest Service Publication Number R6-F&WL-192-1985, Portland, Oregon, USA.

Bull, E. L. 1987. Ecology of the pileated woodpecker in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Wildlife Management 51:472-481.

____, R. C. Beckwith, and R. S. Holthausen. 1992a. Arthropod diet of pileated woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. Northwestern Naturalist 73:42-45.

____, and R. S. Holthausen. 1993. Habitat use and management of pileated woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Wildlife Management 57:335-345.

____, ____, and M. G. Henjum. 1990. Techniques for monitoring pileated woodpeckers. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PNW-GTR-269, Portland, Oregon, USA.

____, ____, and ____. 1992b. Roost trees used by pileated woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Wildlife Management 56:786-793.

____, and J. E. Jackson. 1995. Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Number 148 in A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The birds of North America. Academy of National Science and American Ornithologists’ Union, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Ferguson, H. L, K. Robinette, and K. Stenberg. 2001. Wildlife of urban habitats. Pages 317-341 in D. Johnson and T. O’Neill, editors. Wildlife Habitats and Species Associations in Oregon and Washington: Building a Common Understanding for Management. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon, USA.

Mellen, T. K., E. C. Meslow, and R. W. Mannan. 1992. Summertime home range and habitat use of pileated woodpeckers, western Oregon. Journal of Wildlife Management 56:96-102.

Moulton, C. A., and L. W. Adams. 1991. Effects of urbanization on foraging strategy of woodpeckers. Pages 67-73 in L. W. Adams and D. L. Leedy, editors. Wildlife Conservation in Metropolitan Environments. National Institute for Urban Wildlife, Columbia, Maryland, USA.

Neitro, W. A., V. W. Binkley, S. P. Cline, R. W. Mannan, B. G. Marcot, D. Taylor, and F. F. Wagner. 1985. Snags (Wildlife trees). Pages 129-169 in E. R. Brown, technical editor. Management of wildlife and fish habitats in forests of western Oregon and Washington. USDA Forest Service Publication Number R6-F&WL-192-1985, Portland, Oregon, USA.

Rohila, C. M. 2002. Landscape and local effects on snags and and cavity-nesting birds in an urbanizing area. Thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.

Spies, T. A., and S. P. Cline. 1988. Coarse woody debris in forests and plantations of coastal Oregon. Pages 4-24 in C. Maser, R. F. Tarraut, J. M. Trappe, and J. F. Franklin, technical editors. From the Forest to the Sea: a Story of Fallen Trees. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PNW-GTR-229, Portland, Oregon, USA.

Torgersen, T. R. and E. L. Bull. 1995. Down logs as habitat for forest-dwelling ants - the primary prey of pileated woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. Northwest Science 69:294-303.

Washington Forest Practices Board. 2001. Forest Practices Rules: Title 222 Washington Administrative Code. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington, USA.

WDFW publications

PHS Program

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