One of North America’s largest and most widespread woodpeckers, the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is named for its prominent red crest – pileatus is the Latin word for ‘capped’.
Our guide to female pileated woodpeckers investigates whether both sexes share the same striking head markings and other plumage features, and looks at the role of females in building nests and raising young.
So keep reading to discover all you ever wanted to know – and more – about female pileated woodpeckers!
Females are roughly the same size as males but weigh slightly less. They have a shorter crest, and lack the red facial markings of a male pileated woodpecker, instead having a black mustache.
From a distance, male and female pileated woodpeckers do look quite similar. Both have black bodies, white zig-zag facial stripes, and a distinctive red crest, and are around the same size as a crow. Up close, it’s easier to distinguish between the two sexes.
Female Pileated Woodpecker
Male Pileated Woodpecker
Female pileated woodpeckers are mainly black, with a red crest and some white-yellowish facial markings. Their bodies and wings are dark charcoal-black with a thin white stripe that is visible in flight.
Pileated woodpeckers are easily identified by their bright red crest and lightning bolt-shaped white markings across their faces. These are features that females do share with males to a certain extent, although the female’s crest is shorter and does not extend as far across the crown towards the beak.
A black line runs from the female’s throat towards the beak, and other facial markings include a black eye stripe, and a yellowish-white forehead, immediately below the red cap.
Close up of a female Pileated Woodpecker
Female pileated woodpeckers weigh about 10 to 15 percent less than males, with an average mass of 256 g (9 oz). Both males and females fall within the same range for length: between 40 and 48 cm (16 and 19 in).
Female (left) and male (right) pair of Pileated Woodpeckers on the ground foraging
Although neither male and female pileated woodpeckers are especially aggressive, both are defensive of their territory during the breeding season but more tolerant of nearby birds outside of the period when they are raising young.
When threatened, females alert males to the presence of a potential intruder with loud and rapid drumming, and high-pitched, high-volume communication can be heard between the pair. Although both sexes drum, females are observed to drum less frequently and rapidly than males.
Both male and female pileated woodpeckers actively maintain a relatively large territory, and remain in the same patch together throughout the year.
Female Pileated Woodpecker in flight
Both male and female pileated woodpeckers are vocal birds, known for their loud, escalating shrieking that sounds rather like hysterical, cackling laughter resounding around their woodland habitat.
Other calls made by female and male pileated woodpeckers include a rapid series of cuk-cuk-cuk sounds that can be heard both when in flight and on landing.
Calls made by females are higher pitched than those of males, and both sexes can be heard vocally announcing their presence in a territory they have laid claim to.
Close up of a male Pileated Woodpecker foraging for food
Pileated woodpeckers make their nests in cavities in trees, with males being responsible for site selection, choosing a spot in a dead or decaying tree around 4.5-21 m (15-70 ft) above ground level. Roosting and nesting cavities are necessarily large to comfortably accommodate both birds, and may have several entrances.
Females tend to take a lesser role in nest construction, only assisting and observing while the males drill into the tree trunk and remove the bulk of the wood themselves. Once the cavity is complete, the female pileated woodpecker will add finishing touches and arrange wood chippings as a lining.
Pileated woodpeckers mate for life, with pairs forming after a courtship ritual that sees the female being circled by a male suitor, who impresses the female with his cavity-building skills. The male’s courtship displays include wing spreading, head bobbing and crest raising, while both males and females engage in mutual drumming and tapping with their bills.
Once a pair has been formed, mating takes place on a horizontal tree branch near to the roost cavity, shortly after which eggs are laid. Both parents share incubation duties during the day, while overnight incubation is undertaken by the male.
After hatching, care of pileated woodpecker chicks continues to be shared between both parents, with males and females leaving the nest to find food, which is regurgitated and fed to the young. Males return to the next ahead of sunset, announcing their arrival by drumming outside the nest cavity.
After fledging, young pileated woodpeckers remain with their parents for the first 2 to 3 months of life, and continue to be supported by both male and female birds during this time
A female Pileated Woodpecker feeding her chicks in the cavity nest
Female and male pileated woodpeckers share feeding territories and are frequently observed to feed alongside each other on woodland floors and trunks of trees, foraging for carpenter ants . They also regularly spotted visiting backyard feeders together.
If her mate dies, it would theoretically be possible for a female pileated woodpecker to raise young alone. There are documented cases of males taking care of newly hatched chicks alone when a female had been killed or had abandoned the nest after a threat of predation.
However, one unsuccessful reported case identified a lone female attempting to raise her young by herself but then being killed by a rat snake that raided the nest cavity.
As the vigilance of both partners is key to the survival of young chicks, the success of a lone female pileated woodpecker raising a brood is not guaranteed.
A female Pileated Woodpecker on the side of a tree
Female pileated woodpeckers are mostly black, with white and black facial markings and a bright red crest. They have a yellowish-white patch just below their crest, above the eyes, with a black eye stripe underneath.
Female pileated woodpeckers do call; their calls are higher in pitch than those of males. Both sexes also engage in drumming, although females are observed to drum less frequently than males.
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