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Blane Klemek: The pileated — the largest woodpecker in North America

The first pileated woodpecker I ever observed was many years ago in the oak-filled woodlands of the Otter Tail County dairy farm where I was raised. The giant bird immediately became one of my favorite avian species.

Indeed, the pileated woodpecker is not only Minnesota’s largest woodpecker, but it is also North America’s biggest woodpecker, too. And though sharing numerous physical characteristics and behaviors common to all species of woodpeckers, no other woodpecker — or bird for that matter — looks like it.

For starters, the pileated woodpecker is huge. Often reported to be “about the size of a crow”, the size comparison is indeed a good measure. From 16 to 20 inches long and a wingspan of around 30 inches, it’s easy to understand. The common crow, after all, is about 18 inches long.

Names, whether they are common or Latin names, are interesting. A name’s origin, the meaning, and so on, is sometimes as intriguing as the bird itself — and the giant woodpecker’s name is no exception. Talk to any birder familiar with the pileated woodpecker and you will likely hear one of possibly four pronunciations. While some birders pronounce the name “pill-ee-ate-ed” and others say “pile-ate-ed”, you may even hear another enthusiast say “pie-late-ed” or “pie-lee-ate-ed”. 

Other not-so-common-names of the great woodpecker include English woodpecker, large red-crested woodpecker, laughing woodpecker, black log, black woodcock, king-of-the-woods, and stump breaker. All are apt names for the bird; it is black in color, their call sounds like a maniacal laugh, it breaks up stumps and decaying trees with its chisel-like beak, and the bird sports a prominent red crest on the top of its head.

For certain, the latter reference of one of its most distinguishing features is in part why the woodpecker is of the “pileated” variety. Pileated, the word, means “having a crest covering the pileum”. This word, simply put, means the “head of a bird from its beak to the back of its neck”.

Bird field guidebooks frequently refer to pileated woodpeckers as uncommon. But don’t confuse uncommon with rare. Although it is true to say that pileated woodpeckers are not abundant or even common, it is not accurate to assume that since the bird is uncommon it is therefore rare. 

By definition, at least in regard to birding, uncommon birds are those birds that may be observed regularly in small numbers where they naturally occur during appropriate times of the year.

Meanwhile, rare birds are those birds that occupy only very limited habitats or specific habitat types, or those that occupy small fractions of its most preferred habitat. We can all think of birds that fit these variations of relative abundance: House sparrows are abundant, American robins are common, loggerhead shrikes are uncommon, and whooping cranes are rare.

One of the reasons for the pileated woodpecker’s uncommon abundance is due to their particular behavior and habitat preference. Regarding the former, mated pairs maintain and defend expansive territories when nesting and caring for their young; 150 to over 200 acres. Therefore, when a bird is spotted it will likely be a single bird or pair. Their massive size and the frequency observed may dupe some birders into believing that they’re viewing more birds than they actually are.

Honestly, I cannot recall a single time that I’ve observed more than two adult pileated woodpeckers in the same place at the same time. But if you do happen upon a pileated woodpecker’s territory, you will likely see the birds numerous times visiting favorite feeding sites, flying about, or, if you’re lucky, visiting their nest cavity.

Secondly, and most importantly, is suitable habitat. While deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests are readily used by pileated woodpeckers, the key habitat component are large, mature trees in forests with plenty of dying or dead standing trees — or snags as wildlife biologists and foresters refer to such trees as.

Snags are essential to the survival of pileated woodpeckers. Without dead and dying trees these woodpeckers would be without proper roosting, nesting, and feeding sites. Often is the case that the only visible sign of a pileated woodpecker occupying an area are the elongated and deep excavations they carve into trees and stumps as they search for carpenter ants, beetle larvae, and other invertebrates.

Private landowners with wooded acreage can help many species of wildlife (not just pileated woodpeckers), by leaving plenty of snags standing. Even town residents are sometimes successful at attracting the enormous woodpeckers to their backyards because a dead tree was allowed to remain. In fact, at this writing, a pileated woodpecker landed on my backyard suet feeder for a quick bite to eat.

Pileated woodpeckers are one of the world’s most alluring species of bird. They are essential birds of the forest that helps to hasten the recycling of nutrients from dead wood to the soil, in addition to providing homes for other species of wildlife that utilize the woodpeckers’ abandoned cavities. Lucky we are to live in a place where such magnificent birds can be found as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors. 

(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at