Pileated Woodpeckers are a unique and majestic sight to behold: their bold, red head plumage and trademark, black-and-white patterning make them very easy to identify in densely wooded areas throughout the eastern United States and in most of Canada.
This bird is often heard before it is seen, however, as it’s ‘drumming’ can be quite loud. The volume of Pileated Woodpecker drilling can be attributed to the fact that this is, indeed, a very massive woodpecker!
For birdwatchers or backyard wildlife enthusiasts, attracting Pileated Woodpeckers is a common topic, and there are some things that can be done to increase the chances of a Pileated Woodpecker showing up on your property to score a free meal or a rinse in your bird fountain.
In this article, we’ll be taking a close look at the dietary and nesting preferences of the Pileated Woodpecker, and we’ll be using those preferences as the basis for some suggestions about actions you can take to attract more Pileated Woodpeckers to your property.
What Do Pileated Woodpeckers Do All Day?
If the goal is to attract more Pileated Woodpeckers, it makes sense to ask the question, “What do these birds do all day?”. If we can better understand their foraging, mating, and nesting behavior, we can develop strategies for enticing them.
Attract Them With Food
Biologists have learned that the diet of the common Pileated Woodpecker consists mostly of ants, beetles, insect larvae, and wild fruits like hackberries, blackberries, and elderberries. However, locating and consuming their food is something that requires a fair amount of work for the Pileated Woodpecker, which is where the woodpecking comes into play.
This woodpecker spends a lot of its time hunting and foraging; that is, if it’s not looking for a mate, incubating it’s eggs, or feeding its nestlings. Because we know that finding food is such a high priority for Pileated Woodpeckers, step one in attracting them is going to be creating an environment that advertises, “Food here!”.
Most of the delectable food that Pileated Woodpeckers enjoy is located just beneath the bark layer of trees or tree stumps that have begun to decay. These smart birds have learned that if they can just peel away this surface layer of bark, they can often reveal the hidden homes of beetles, termites, and other small insects. And, if they ‘drill’ even further, they can find the delicious larvae that is often laid in the cambium layer of the tree.
Therefore, if we want to attract more Pileated Woodpeckers, we want to have an abundance of mature trees or tree stumps on the property.
If you do not have an abundance of mature or dead trees then the next best thing is to put up a few woodpecker feeders. These woodpeckers respond most favorably to feeders that are large enough to accommodate their size. One type of feeder that does well for these birds is a “Tree Trunk” type feeder that has holes drilling in the side. The holes can be stuffed with suet, “Bark Butter” or other treats. Here is what these feeders look like.
These birds can also be attracted with a simple basket type suet feeder as long as there is a way for them to perch and reach it.
And here are a few more options from the Cornell Bird Lab that do a good job of bringing these birds in close.
Pileateds can be a tricky bird to bring in and don’t get disappointed if your first attempt with putting up feeders doesn’t work. It will often take a couple of weeks for the birds to find the feeders and you might need to try a few different types and try them out in different locations.
Attract Them With A Nest
If a Pileated Woodpecker isn’t out looking for food, it’s likely spending its time creating or tending to the nest, where between three and five offspring are likely to be fledged. Nest building is a serious affair for these birds as they create cavities in trees that have an opening of six to eight inches and a depth of up to two feet!
Excavation of these cavities takes several weeks to complete and is essential for raining their young.
If you do not have trees that are suitable for cavity excavation then consider putting up a nesting box. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a downloadable plan for constructing a nesting box suitable for pileated woodpeckers.
Pro Tip: The woodpeckers will want to excavate the nest box just like they do when they are creating a cavity in a tree. To make this possible fill the nest box with wood chips and sawdust so the woodpeckers have something to dig through.
Mating, pairing, and nest-building activity for Pileated Woodpeckers takes place in the Spring and Summer months, with fledgelings reaching flight maturity by about September. So, if you are going to put up a nest box make sure you do so in early Spring. Nest boxes should be placed at least 15 feet up in a tree and preferably inside the woods, not on a tree at the edge of the woods.
A few other things to keep in mind is that having a source of water helps attract almost all species of birds including these. You will also want to keep your cats indoors.
In general these are shy birds but with a little patience and planning you might be able to get them to land and feed on your back deck!
By taking some of the steps listed here, and with a little bit of luck, you could be finding your property becoming a new hotspot for Pileated Woodpecker visits!