Breeding Bird Atlas 1 Species Accounts

Pileated Woodpecker
Dryocopus pileatus

Egg Dates

mid-April to early June

Number of Broods

one; may re-lay if first attempt fails.
This spectacular, nearly crow-sized woodpecker has made a comeback since the early 1900s, when its numbers were reduced due to gunning and the clearing of much of the primeval forest for lumber and agriculture. It has been able to coexist with humans and adapt to the secondary forest conditions that have evolved with the abandonment of farmland. The Log-cock or Cock of the Woods is a denizen of extensive forests and is therefore most common in the western third of Massachusetts. Forbush recorded the species as breeding east to Middlesex County. During the Atlas period, confirmations were also made in Essex and Norfolk counties. The pileated is rare in any season in the southeastern portions of the state including Cape Cod and the Islands.

Pileated Woodpeckers mate for life and maintain close pair bonds throughout the year. Because of this, there often is not a great deal of displaying in the spring. However, some individuals perform antics on the ground, bowing, scraping, and sidestepping in the manner of flickers. At times, a pair will engage in bill pecking, hopping up and down the trunk of a tree and occasionally elevating their crests and partly spreading their wings.

These woodpeckers are as wary as grouse, keen of sight and hearing, and often difficult to see in spite of their relatively large size. The common call notes so closely resemble those of the flicker that they are often overlooked. The Pileated Woodpecker’s louder and irregular kik-kik-kikkik-kik-kik can be compared to the flicker’s wick-wick-wick-wick. Cuk is another frequent vocalization and appears to have several functions, such as registering excitement, locating the mate, or indicating roosting locations. Drumming occurs in every month of the year but is most frequent in the spring.

Large, rectangular, chiseled-out carvings in the trees indicate the birds’ presence. They dig into the heart rot where carpenter ants have their galleries and extract the prey with their tongues. At other times, they will strip away bark and often descend to feed on fallen logs and the ground. It has been postulated that their skill of “sounding” tree trunks enables them to locate their insect prey. Their diet varies with the seasons. Ants (primarily large, black ants), a variety of beetles, and a few caterpillars make up the majority of the animal matter. The vegetable menu (17 percent to 27 percent) consists of wild berries, fruit, and mast.

A pair generally excavates a new nesting hole each spring. Some may begin working in February (Gagnon) and others during March and April, with as much as a month needed to complete the cavity. The birds return year after year to the same location and often to the same tree. Nest sites may be deep in the woods or on the edge, sometimes surprisingly close to areas of human activity. A variety of tree species, live or dead, may be utilized, but the dead portions of deciduous trees with a diameter of 15 to 20 inches are preferred. Four Massachusetts nests were located as follows: 1 in a live Red Pine (Gagnon), 1 in a dead White Ash, and 2 in dead White Pines (McMenemy). The height of the entrance ranges from 12 to 85 feet, with an average of 45 feet above the ground. Heights of 3 Massachusetts nests ranged from 40 to 60 feet (McMenemy). The opening to the cavity ranges from 3.5 to 4.5 inches and the depth 10 to 30 inches. In this state as elsewhere, the birds may excavate in utility poles and cause damage.

The three or four white eggs rest on the bottom of the cavity on a bed of finely splintered wood chips. The clutch sizes for 3 Massachusetts nests were 1 set of three eggs and 2 sets of four eggs (DKW). Both parents share the 18-day incubation period, and, as is typical for woodpeckers, the male broods at night. Pileated Woodpeckers have been known to carry their eggs in the bill to a new site. Only one brood is reared, but, if the first attempt fails, the birds may renest in the same or a new cavity. The young hatch naked and helpless, and during the first two weeks one parent is always at the nest, the changing of the guard taking place about once an hour. The returning bird feeds the young by an interesting routine, pivoting down into the cavity with the tail braced against the hole. It then inserts its bill into the throat of a youngster and vigorously regurgitates the food. At about two weeks of age, the young can climb to the entrance hole, and for the next week and a half the parents meet them there and feed from the outside. The young produce a rasping, begging call. Around 24 days of age, the young become restless, and the parents encourage them to leave the nest by abbreviated feedings and drumming on nearby trees.

Nestling and fledging dates for 5 Worcester County nests are as follows: June 14, young nearly ready to fledge (ACB); June 16, young fledged (TC); June 16, nestlings (McMenemy); June 18, nestlings (TC); June 27, one young fledged (McMenemy).

The family group will stay together into the fall season, roosting at night in separate holes or together in one large cavity. A pair once established is not likely to leave its area during the changing seasons, but it requires a large territory of several square miles. The young disperse in the fall and winter, and some wander widely, appearing in areas far distant from the breeding grounds. The successful young learn to avoid large accipiters and raccoons, which appear to be their chief enemies.

Map Legend and Data Summary

Atlas 1 data collected from 1975-1979
uncommon in extensive forested areas; less common and local in eastern Massachusetts and absent in the southeastern coastal plain
Note: uncommon in extensive forested areas; less common and local in eastern Massachusetts and absent in the southeastern coastal plain
Winthrop W. Harrington