This bird is loud. Not its call, which isn't that much different than other woodpeckers. We're talking about the way it pecks — pounds really — the sides of trees in search of a meal, to excavate a site for a nest or defend its territory.
You have to hear a pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, at work really to appreciate the percussive volume it can generate. Even after you've heard one, the second still will astound you. And you know in an instant what you're hearing. It's jackhammer-like.
But loud isn't the only thing that makes the pileated woodpecker extraordinary. There is its size, twice that of a red-bellied woodpecker, for example. And there is its stunning show of color — red and white and black — as it flashes through the woods, high in the trees.
Its size and triangular red crest make the pileated (pronounced PIE LEE ATE ED ) woodpecker easy to identify. That crest is also the source of its name, since it covers the top of the bird's head, or pileum as it's called in scientific terms. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the bird that bears the closest resemblance is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is extremely rare if not extinct.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the pileated is the third-most common woodpecker in Florida, behind the red-bellied and the downy. In our experience, we'd actually rank it ahead of the downy, but that might be due to the pileated's size and more conspicous color mix and habits, which make it easier to spot than its smaller, black-and-white cousin.
They have a body length of a foot-and-a-half or more and and a wingspan of two-and-a-half feet. Pileated woodpeckers like deep woods, but they are moving into wooded 'burbs, particularly in the east. We've seen them at River Bend County Park in Jupiter, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and in the cypress swamp at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The photos below were taken at Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area in Royal Palm Beach and at Frenchman's Forest Natural Area in Palm Beach Gardens. Carpenter ants are by far their favorite food but they will eat other ants and bugs as well as some fruit. The holes they makes become homes for other birds and bats.
The range of the pileated woodpecker wraps around North America, beginning in the southeastern United States, up the east coast into Canada, across the continent into British Columbia and south to California. It became rare in places as eastern forests were cut during the 19th century, but has staged a comeback. It is nonmigratory, and a year-round resident of Florida.
Pileated woodpeckers nest fairly high in dead trees. The male begins excavating a rectangular hole for the nest, but the female shares the work. Both sit on the eggs, usually two or three per clutch, and both feed their young. Incubation takes two or three weeks; the young fledge in about four weeks. They often hang with their parents for two or three more months.
The pileated woodpecker is a member of Picadae, the family of woodpeckers and related birds. Some say the pileated was the model for the cartoon bird, Woody Woodpecker. But creator Walter Lantz said it was the antics of an acorn woodpecker that inspired him to create his crazy bird.