Pileated Woodpecker or Red-headed Woodpecker: What Are The Differences?

Pileated Woodpecker or Red-headed Woodpecker: What Are The Differences?

The Pileated and Red-headed woodpeckers are two of the most recognizable bird species. One is easily identified by its solid red head, while the other is recognized by its red crest. Both species have overlapping ranges, but that is about as far as similarities go.

Pileated Woodpeckers have red crests and long bills, whereas Red-headed Woodpeckers have red heads with a much shorter bill. Their plumages are entirely different, making it easy to tell apart by appearance alone. Also, Pileated Woodpeckers are considerably larger than Red-headed Woodpeckers.

The eating habits of these two woodpeckers also differ significantly. One exhibits classic pecking and gleaning behavior, while the other is primarily a flycatcher.

We will discuss the differences between the pileated and red-headed woodpecker in more detail throughout the article. Read on to discover more about two fascinating species!

<p><strong>Pileated Woodpecker</strong></p>

Pileated Woodpecker

<p><strong>Red-headed Woodpecker</strong></p>

Red-headed Woodpecker

Distribution Range differences


Pileated and red-headed woodpeckers are native to eastern North America. Their ranges overlap from western Vermont to Florida and west throughout the Great Plains of eastern Texas and Oklahoma. Both species also expand north into southeastern Kansas, eastern Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Red-headed and pileated woodpeckers overlap a small amount in southeastern Ontario and southern Manitoba, as well. The red-headed woodpecker has a small range within Canada and only occurs during the breeding season, while the pileated is distributed widely.

Pileated Woodpeckers overlap with Red-headed Woodpeckers mostly in eastern North America - female Pileated Woodpecker, pictured

Pileated Woodpeckers overlap with Red-headed Woodpeckers mostly in eastern North America - female Pileated Woodpecker, pictured


The pileated woodpeckers' range expands throughout the northeastern United States into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This species’ distribution continues west through southern Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba; north through central Saskatchewan and Alberta, then back south through much of British Columbia.

Also, unlike the red-headed woodpecker, the pileated occurs in the western US, from Washington to central California - west of the Cascades - and in eastern Washington, far northeastern Oregon, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana.

The red-headed woodpecker has a more extensive distribution within the United States. Their breeding range extends north and west from Oklahoma, covering much of the Great Plains and boarding eastern Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Red-headed Woodpeckers have a more extensive distribution within the US

Red-headed Woodpeckers have a more extensive distribution within the US

Which is bigger, a Pileated Woodpecker or a Red-headed Woodpecker?

The pileated woodpecker is bigger than the red-headed woodpecker. It is likely the largest woodpecker found in North America - since the ivory-billed woodpecker is thought to be extinct.

These birds are often referred to as crow-sized, they typically measure between 40 to 49 cm long and weigh 250 to 350 g. Pileated females are always smaller than males.

On the other hand, red-headed woodpeckers are medium-sized. They measure between 19.4 and 23.5 cm in length and weigh 56 to 91 grams.

Pileated Woodpeckers are thought to now be the largest woodpecker species in the US

Pileated Woodpeckers are thought to now be the largest woodpecker species in the US

Which are more common, Pileated Woodpeckers or Red-headed Woodpeckers?

Pileated woodpeckers are more common than red-headed woodpeckers. There is an estimated population of 2.6 million pileated throughout their extensive range. Due to their numbers, the conservation concern for this species is ranked low.

In contrast, the red-headed woodpecker is far less common. At one time, this bird was widespread throughout eastern North America, but numbers have been decreasing for years, likely due to habitat loss.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are less common - Red-headed woodpecker foraging in serviceberry bush

Red-headed Woodpeckers are less common - Red-headed woodpecker foraging in serviceberry bush

Differences in Appearance and Behavior

Head shape and Eyes

Compared to red-headed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers have an elongated head with a longer bill and unmistakable red crest. The red-headed woodpecker has a rounder, solid red head with a shorter bill.

Their eye color also differs. The red-headed woodpecker boasts solid black eyes, while the pileated woodpecker has yellowish-gold irises surrounding black pupils.

<p><strong>Pileated Woodpecker portrait</strong></p>

Pileated Woodpecker portrait

<p><strong>Close up of a Red-headed Woodpecker</strong></p>

Close up of a Red-headed Woodpecker

Flight and Other Movement

Pileated woodpeckers are strong and rather noisy flyers. Their flight patterns are typically undulating and slow. Like other woodpeckers, this species is also well adapted to climbing trees vertically.

Red-headed woodpecker flight is dissimilar to many other woodpecker species. It is powerful but less undulatory, they tend to sallie gracefully through the air catching insects.

Of course, the red-headed can also climb vertically up and down trees, as is typical of all woodpeckers. However, they are generally more sluggish in their movements.

<p><strong>Pileated Woodpecker in flight</strong></p>

Pileated Woodpecker in flight

<p><strong>Red-headed Woodpecker in flight</strong></p>

Red-headed Woodpecker in flight

Diet and Hunting

Pileated woodpeckers are primarily excavators. They pry away long slivers of bark to expose insect galleries underneath, gleaning carpenter ants, wood-boring beetle larvae, and other insects from branches, trunks, and logs. This species will also eat fruits and nuts and occasionally forage on the ground.

For more information on the diet of a Pileated Woodpecker, check out this guide.

The red-headed woodpeckers' diet is somewhat unlike other species. They are bark gleaners, but not to the same extent as other woodpeckers. The red-headed is an expert fly catcher, which is how it obtains most of its food. These woodpeckers also eat various nuts and seeds.

Pileated Woodpeckers foraging for food

Pileated Woodpeckers foraging for food


It is easy to differentiate these two woodpeckers by their plumage. Pileated woodpeckers are primarily black with a flame-red crest and white stripes on the face and neck. They have white patches under their wings, only visible when they fly. Males also have a red stripe on both cheeks.

On the other hand, the red-headed woodpecker has a solid, bright red head and a black back with large white patches on the wings. Their underparts are also primarily white.

<p><strong>Pileated Woodpecker</strong></p>

Pileated Woodpecker

<p><strong>Red-headed Woodpecker</strong></p>

Red-headed Woodpecker

Female Pileated Woodpecker vs female Red-headed Woodpecker

The female pileated woodpecker is almost twice as large as the female red-headed woodpecker. On average, they weigh 256 g and measure between 40 and 48 cm long, while red-headed woodpeckers weigh 56 to 97 grams and measure 19 to 25 cm in length.

Red-headed woodpeckers are also sexually monomorphic, meaning the female looks identical to the male. Pileated woodpeckers, on the other hand, are sexually dimorphic (to a small extent).

The female of this species has a gray-black forecrown and red crest. She also lacks the red cheek stripes that help identify the male.

<p><strong>Female Pileated Woodpecker</strong></p>

Female Pileated Woodpecker

<p><strong>Female Red-headed Woodpecker</strong></p>

Female Red-headed Woodpecker

Juvenile Pileated Woodpecker vs juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker

Like the adults, juvenile pileated woodpeckers are bigger than juvenile red-headed woodpeckers. Pileated young weigh 170 to 240 grams when they first leave the nest, whereas red-headed woodpecker young weigh around 70 grams.

Both species have a similar fledging time, between 24 and 28 days.

Plumage differences between the two species are also significant. Red-headed woodpeckers at the juvenile stage do not yet look like adults. They are various shades of brown rather than primarily black and white with the namesake redhead.

However, pileated woodpecker juveniles have similar plumage to adults. Their bodies are primarily black, with black and white striped faces and red crests. The only difference is that juveniles are buffier overall and have shorter crests.

<p><strong>Juvenile Pileated Woodpecker</strong></p>

Juvenile Pileated Woodpecker

<p><strong>Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker</strong></p>

Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker

Enjoyed this content? Share it now

You may also like

Get the best of Birdfact

Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.

Your information will be used in accordance with Birdfact's privacy policy. You may opt out at any time.

© 2024 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.