Ivory-billed woodpeckers – similar in size and appearance to pileated woodpeckers – are now likely extinct, with the last widely accepted sighting in 1944. So what, if anything, does this mean for the long-term survival of the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)? Are they also at risk of dying out? Keep reading to learn more about the largest extant woodpecker species of North America.
Pileated woodpeckers have an extensive distribution range and a stable population and are considered a species of least concern. They are common across the southeastern U.S. but do face threats to their survival in the wild, especially from humans.
One hundred years ago, the outlook was bleak for these so-called carpenter birds. Large tracts of forest were cleared across the southern U.S., resulting in major habitat loss and a steep decline in population numbers.
Foraging grounds and nesting sites were lost, and areas in which pileated woodpeckers had once been common, were left with no sightings at all.
To learn more about the pileated woodpecker’s miraculous comeback from the brink of extinction, and where the best places to catch sight of one of these excavating experts, then just keep reading as we’ll be discussing these topics in-depth below.
Pileated Woodpeckers are classified as a species on least concern
Pileated woodpecker populations witnessed a dramatic decline during the 19th and early 20th centuries due to an increase in logging activity and widespread habitat destruction of mature forests, as well as a lack of protection for the species from human trapping and shooting activities.
Since the late 20th century, this decline has reversed, population numbers stabilized and are now increasing steadily. The species is widespread across North America, and there is no longer cause for concern.
Woodland restoration projects have provided increased habitat options, and environmental legislation protecting pileated woodpeckers is in effect, limiting the numbers lost to hunting.
The clearance of vast expanses of virgin forests across the southern United States from 1880 to the mid-1940s had a huge impact on the population of pileated woodpeckers and many other forest-dwelling species.
Clearance of forests in the 1880s to the 1940s had a significant impact on Pileated Woodpecker numbers
The main dangers to pileated woodpeckers include bird and animal predators as well as human threats. Threats to the species have also increased with the changes to the manmade environment, with some birds perishing after accidentally flying into windows or being hit by cars.
Human activity affects the survival of pileated woodpeckers both directly and indirectly. Logging and deforestation caused a decline in pileated woodpecker populations, due to widespread habitat loss across their original native range.
Hunting pileated woodpeckers for food and for sport were two major factors that contributed to the decline in numbers. Now they have protected status against being hunted in the U.S. and in Canada, numbers have bounced back.
Predators target pileated woodpeckers, both at the nest site and in free flight. Nest cavity predators include martens, weasels, squirrels, foxes, and snakes. In urban settings, and backyards, cats are among the species leading predators.
The pileated woodpecker’s large size and low-level flight makes them an easy target for birds of prey, including goshawks, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, and barred owls.
Humans hunting pileated woodpeckers for sport or for food was formerly a significant threat. Now the species has been awarded legal protection under the Migratory Bird Act, they can no longer be targeted or shot as a pest species for causing damage to property and trees.
Close up of a Pileated Woodpecker foraging for food on the forest floor
Pileated woodpeckers may be considered a nuisance if they move in close to your property and start excavating wooden eaves or pillars to create nesting cavities. But a few simple steps may offer them an alternative spot and mean that they can coexist alongside humans with little detrimental effect.
Pileated woodpeckers do nest in nesting boxes, so providing these on tall trees will offer them ready-made cavities for nesting and roosting in.
Providing large feeders, particularly ones topped up with suet, will give an extra feeding opportunities and areas left wild, with snags, fallen branches, logs and ground leaf litter cover, will present a chance to forage for the insects that are key to their diet.
The global population of pileated woodpeckers is estimated at 1.9 million birds. Of these, around 67 percent live in the United States, with the remaining 33 percent resident in Canada.
Pileated Woodpeckers are widespread across the eastern half of the United States
Despite their large size, spotting a pileated woodpecker might be trickier than expected. Forest-dwelling pileated woodpeckers are elusive birds, fearful of giving away their nesting spots and risking attack from passing predators.
Pileated Woodpeckers are only native to North America. They live and breed across most of the eastern half of the United States, as well as in parts of the northwest. The species is also widespread throughout Canada.
Pileated Woodpecker coming in to land on a wooden post
Pileated Woodpeckers are widespread in the eastern half of the United States, from Florida to eastern Texas, and northwards from New England across to Minnesota in the Mid West.
They are also resident in regions along the northern Pacific coast and in the northern Rocky Mountains. The species is most numerous in the southeast.
Termed a ‘keystone species’, pileated woodpeckers help to keep insect populations under control, maintaining the important balance of the natural ecosystem in their habitats.
Populations of some pest species, for example certain tree beetles, may reach outbreak levels in the absence of foraging pileated woodpeckers keeping the numbers at a manageable level.
Pileated woodpeckers’ contribution to their local environment does not end there, as the hollows and cavities they excavate are, in turn, used as nests and shelters by a number of secondary-cavity nesting species, providing nature’s equivalent of a property construction service for owls, ground squirrels, wood ducks and many other bird and mammal species.
Close up of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight
Despite being resident birds rather than migratory, pileated woodpeckers are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. Their importance as a keystone species in the ecosystem, and the role they play in controlling the number of insects, led to their inclusion, meaning that it is illegal to hunt or kill the species, or interfere with its nest site, eggs, or young.
Due to the damage to trees and property these birds may inflict, householders may be tempted to take matters into their own hands to drive pileated woodpeckers off their property, but the law exists to ensure the species is safeguarded and its habitat is protected.
Pileated woodpeckers are protected against being killed by members of the public under US Federal Law. The species was also included in a 2022 amendment to the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, which offers protection to the species, their nests and young – meaning that killing one is illegal and carries a serious penalty.
Special permits for woodpecker extermination may be granted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in exceptional cases where pileated woodpeckers are causing significant damage to property, although these are not automatically granted and are issued on a case-by-case basis.
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