Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)


The Pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America and is a keystone old growth associated species that is entirely dependent upon the specific characteristics of mature forests for its core habitat.  Logging activities destroys much of this vital habitat and has had a profound impact on their existence. The removal of large diameter dead and living trees is the most significant impact affecting pileated woodpeckers because it eliminates nesting, roosting and feeding sites. Forest fragmentation also reduces population density by exposing birds to predation as they fly between patches. This species has also been the victim of extensive shooting and is currently protected from such actions though they are still shot to this day. Other threats considered to be most influential in the demise of species include: the conversion of forest habitats to non-forested habitats; monoculture and plantation style forestry; forest fragmentation; and removal of fallen logs and downed wood from the forest floor.  In particular, the removal of logging residue and downed wood takes away the nutrients and foraging opportunities for pileated woodpeckers and also reduces the overall water content of the forest floor, making it less suitable for the insect species that species is dependent on.


Pileated woodpeckers occupy areas with mature, late successional forests that contain a lot of dead trees, or snags. particularly those which have become infected with heart rot. They typically excavate one large nest each year in the cavities of these snags, thus creating habitat for other large cavity nesters as they move on to new nest sites. The pileated woodpecker occupies both coniferous and deciduous forests and they can also be found along river corridors. Its primary food consists of carpenter ants living in fallen timber, dead roots, and stumps.  It is found on each National Forest in the Sierra Nevada and therefore its range is quite diverse.


Pileated woodpeckers play an important role within their ecosystems as a keystone species by excavating nesting and roosting cavities that are subsequently used by many other birds and by many small mammals -- including the rare Pacific fisher, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Appropriate management for maintaining viable habitat and populations should focus on maintaining foraging and nesting habitat, and retaining dead and dying trees in a range of habitats. Clear-cutting of old-growth and other forests currently has the most significant impact on pileated woodpecker habitat. Riparian forested habitats along rivers and large streams are also vitally important to pileated woodpeckers and logging operations in riparian areas can be especially devastating.


The pileated woodpecker is not currently listed as a threatened or endangered species, although it is a protected species. National Forests in the Sierra Nevada which currently list the species as a management indicator species (MIS) are the  Eldorado, Lassen, Modoc, Sequoia, Stanislaus National Forests and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. However, under recent amendments of the MIS requirements in the region, the pileated woodpecker has been dropped from monitoring requirements with the excuse that they have become too hard to locate.

Scientific Research

Aubry, K.M. and C.L. Raley. 2002. The pileated woodpecker as a keystone habitat modifier in the Pacific Northwest [262 KB PDF]. In Laudenslayer, W.F. et al, eds. 2002.  Proceedings of the Symposium on the Ecology and Management of Dead Wood in Western Forests.  Reno, NV. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-181. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station; 949 p.

Bull, E.L., 2001. Survivorship of Pileated Woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Field Ornithology, 72(1): 131-135. (611KB PDF)

Bull, E.L., et.al., 2005. Short-Term Effects of Fuel Reduction on Pileated Woodpeckers in Northeastern Oregon - A Pilot Study. Pacific Northwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service, RP-564. (573KB PDF)

Hartwig, C.L., et.al., 2004. Characteristics of pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) cavity trees and their patches on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Forest Ecology and Management, 187: 225-234. (136KB PDF)

Laudenslayer Jr., William F.; Shea, Patrick J.; Valentine, Bradley E.; Weatherspoon, C. Phillip; Lisle, Thomas E.  2002.  Proceedings of the Symposium on the Ecology and Management of Dead Wood in Western Forests.  Reno, NV. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-181. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station; 949 p.

Saab, V., W. Block, R. Russell, J. Lehmkuhl, L. Bate,and R. White. 2007. Birds and burns of the interior West: descriptions, habitats, and management in western forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-712. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 23 p. (1.5 MB PDF)

Supporting Resources

California Department of Fish and Game Natural History Information --This California state website contains rather limited and old information but is a good basic background composite for the species. Choose from a drop-down list to select the animal you are interested in.

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