Pileated Woodpeckers

The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest and most striking forest birds in North America. Requiring dead, preferably large trees to nest in, these birds are found in deciduous, evergreen, or mixed forests; mature woodlands or young forest with dead wood; and even suburbs containing old, dead trees. 50 years ago, it would have been rare to see a Pileated woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood, but as the trees around these homes have matured and died off, the large black birds with the dashing white stripe and scarlet crest are becoming more common. The woodpecker depicted at the top of the page, for example, was photographed by Bob Stuller in his backyard in New London, Connecticut this January.

What follows is a photo essay compiled by Carrie Crompton of Andover, CT Master Naturalist apprentice, illustrating the feeding behavior of Pileated woodpeckers.


Pileated Woodpeckers have been stripping this dead Populus grandidentata, commonly called large-tooth aspen, big-tooth aspen, American aspen, or white poplar, all winter.

As they excavate insect galleries in the punky wood, they throw the strips of wood to the ground.

The snag has weakened to the point that large chunks are breaking off.

One afternoon in January 2018, I discovered a female Pileated at work (19-second video).

What is she after? Carpenter ants. Pileated woodpeckers favorite food is carpenter ants, but they eat many other insects, and wild fruits and nuts as well.

Carpenter ants do not consume wood — they simply use it as structural material for their nests. They chew up soft, wet wood with their mandibles and remove it from the galleries as they create them. Often, you can tell carpenter ants are at work when you see a pile of “sawdust” at the base of a hollowed-out tree. They are not responsible for the death of the wood — they are simply clearing out what is already dead.

The characteristic rectangular hollow made by a Pileated woodpecker. The nest holes in trees created by Pileateds provide important shelter for many species including ducks, owls, and bats. Note the "galleries" made by the carpenter ants inside the cavity. 
"Sawdust" created by carpenter ants.

Do Pileateds use the same visual clue that I have -- sawdust at the base of the tree -- to infer the presence of carpenter ants? Or do they use other clues — sounds or smells for example — to detect carpenter ants beneath the bark of a snag? I do not know.

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