The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest living Woodpecker species in the United States. These striking black, red, and white birds occur in the Northwest, across Canada, and South through the eastern half of the United States to Texas and Oklahoma.
So just how big are Pileated Woodpeckers, and how do they compare with the other American Woodpeckers?
Pileated Woodpeckers are usually described as crow-sized and are similar in length and mass to the Fish Crow of the American Southeast. These large Woodpeckers average about 17 inches from bill to tail, with a 28-inch wingspan and a weight of about 10 ounces.
Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the largest members of the Picidae, a family that contains over 230 species on five continents.
Pileated Woodpeckers are a similar size to crows
They are significantly larger than any other American Woodpecker, although the recently extinct and similar-looking Ivory-billed Woodpecker was slightly larger.
Pileated Woodpeckers vary in size pretty significantly across their North American range. There are two recognized subspecies. Birds of the smaller southeastern subspecies (D. p. pileatus) have a longer bill than the larger subspecies of the northwest (D. p. abieticola) but are otherwise very similar in appearance.
Read this article to learn all about the size of the Pileated Woodpecker, a large and distinctive bird of American forests and woodlands.
Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest species of Woodpecker in America
Pileated Woodpeckers of both sexes usually have a wingspan of between 26 and 29.5 inches (66 to 75 cm). Their broad, black, and white wings measure about fifty percent wider across than the next biggest Woodpecker species.
Pileated Woodpeckers do not have particularly long wings for a bird of their size. Their wingspan and overall body size are very similar to those of the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), one of their many predators.
Long wings are not very useful in forested environments, particularly when making short flights between branches and trees. Nevertheless, Pileated Woodpeckers are capable of strong and direct flight, even if they are a little slow.
The wingspan of a Pileated Woodpecker is comparable to a Cooper's Hawk
Pileated Woodpeckers usually weigh between 8.8 and 12.3 ounces (250 - 350 g), although some sources claim weights of over 14 ounces (400 g).
They are large, robust Woodpeckers that weigh more than twice as much as their nearest competitors, the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) and Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis).
Female Pileated Woodpeckers are slightly smaller than their male counterparts, weighing ten to fifteen percent less on average.
Most Pileated Woodpeckers measure between 16 and 19 inches (40 - 50 cm) long from bill tip to tail tip. This is about the length between the elbow and fingertips of many adult humans. Their wingspan is about the size of the average human arm or a little shorter.
Male Pileated Woodpecker visiting a suet feeder
Juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers weigh between 6 and 8.5 ounces (170 g - 240 g) when they first fledge the nest, 24-31 days after hatching. Both sexes have similar weights at this age.
Their flight feathers are about three-quarters of their adult length when they begin to make their first practice flights, and it shows in their poor flying skills.
The young birds will follow their parents for several months after leaving their nest as they learn to improve their flying and foraging skills.
Juvenile Pileated Woodpecker
The largest Pileated Woodpeckers weigh up to fourteen ounces and have body lengths of over nineteen inches.
Pileated Woodpeckers are so much larger than the other American Woodpeckers that it’s only natural to wonder why. Continue reading to learn how their impressive size benefits them.
Pileated Woodpeckers use their size and power to chisel into the wood to excavate nest cavities and search for their invertebrate prey. They use their long necks and powerful bills to strike into logs and stumps at up to fifteen miles per hour, something they will do thousands of times each day.
These excavations are not only necessary for their own survival, however. Researchers from the USDA Forest Service have described Pileated Woodpeckers as ecosystem engineers because they modify their environment in ways that benefit other species in their environment.
Pileated Woodpecker foraging for food in the winter
Many other birds and mammals use their nest cavities for shelter and breeding. They also return the nutrients in dead wood to the forest soil by breaking it down into fine chips.
You could be forgiven for thinking their large size means that these birds eat large prey, but in fact, the Pileated Woodpecker diet consists largely of ants and other small invertebrates that live inside dead wood. They also feed on other invertebrates, fruits, and even visit backyard bird feeders from time to time.
Powerful pecking is not only handy for homemaking and finding a meal. Pileated Woodpeckers use their powerful hammering skills to communicate with other members of their species- a technique known as drumming.
These birds choose a resonant tree trunk to drum in a rhythm that attracts potential partners and keeps their neighbors in their own territory.
Continue reading to learn how Pileated Woodpeckers compare with the other American Woodpecker species.
The nest cavity of a Pileated Woodpecker, with chick outside
Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers that birdwatchers are likely to spot in the United States. Only the Recently extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was slightly larger at up to 20 inches (50 cm) in length and a pound (450 g) or more in weight.
Tragically, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is now considered extinct, although many hopeful bird watchers still seek them in the forests of the American Southeast.
The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is the most common Woodpecker species in the contiguous United States. These familiar birds are dwarfed by the Pileated Woodpecker. With a mass of just over an ounce, Downy Woodpeckers birds are about ten times smaller than their giant relatives.
With such a large size and distinctive look, Pileated Woodpeckers are not likely to be confused with any other North American Woodpecker species.
For birdwatchers who are just starting out, comparing Pileated Woodpeckers with smaller species like the White-headed Woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus) and the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) could be helpful because they have similar markings.
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