5 Proven Ways to Attract Pileated Woodpeckers to Your Yard

Pileated woodpeckers are an unmistakable beauty of the wild bird world and having one visit your backyard would be a real thrill! 

I scoured the internet for days learning about this bird and how real backyard birders have attracted this beauty to their yards so I can bring you real actionable tips for doing the same. 

Here are the 5 proven ways to attract pileated woodpecker to your yard:

  1. Offer food they prefer
  2. Avoid clearing dead, dying, or fallen trees
  3. Plant fruit-bearing trees & shrubs
  4. Have water available
  5. Hang a nesting box

I’ll go into more detail about how to attract them but first I’d like to share where they live, what they look like, their habitat, sounds, diet, mating, and nesting habits.

If you’re in a hurry, feel free to skip ahead to the details around my 5 proven ways to attract this woodpecker.

Where Pileated Woodpeckers Live

US map showing the range of the pileated woodpecker
Map depicting where pileated woodpeckers live. Compliments of The Cornell University.

Pileated woodpeckers are year-round birds that live in Canada, the upper midwest, and eastern parts of the US. They are also found to a lesser extent in the pacific northwest.  

Appearance

Identifying this woodpecker is very easy. They are the largest woodpeckers in North America sizing in at about 16-19” in length which’s about the size of the common crow. While in flight their wingspan can reach 26-30”.

They’re mostly black with white stripes on their face and neck with white underwings. The flaming red triangle-shaped crest is unmistakable and the male also has a red stripe on his cheek.

The main difference between the male and the female pileated woodpecker is the crest.  While both male and female crest is flaming red and triangle-shaped, the male’s crest is longer – goes all the way to its beak – whereas the female’s crest does not extend beyond the forecrown. 

Male pileated woodpecker
Male pileated woodpecker. Photo by Anne Spiers
Female pileated woodpecker
Female pileated woodpecker. Photo by Anne Spiers

They have long, tough beaks with a tip shaped like a chisel –  ideal for all the pecking they do to drill into bark for insects and excavate holes for nesting.

One of the most interesting attributes of this woodpecker is its tongue which is designed for easy capture and consumption of their favorite food –  insects.

Their tongue is sticky, contains barbs (handy for capturing and drawing insects into their mouth), and is extremely long!  In fact, the tongue is so long the bird’s unique anatomy provides space for it to wrap the tongue in and around the skull when not in use.

Male pileated woodpecker taking flight.
Male pileated woodpecker taking flight. Photo by Anne Spiers

This bird’s flight is strong and smooth but slow. Given their large stature it’s a true sight to behold.

The physical attributes of this bird are fairly unique so they are rarely confused with other birds.

Habitat 

Pileated woodpeckers live in forests and wooded areas that offer tall deciduous (leafy trees like maple &  beech), coniferous trees (like evergreen & pine), and lower fruit & nut bearing trees & shrubs.

They’ve even been found in small, urban wooded areas in and around backyards.

Dead and decaying trees are ideal as they provide a host for this bird’s primary food source (insects) as well as an ideal place to drill out a home for nesting.

As long as the trees are mature or decaying the area offers an ideal habitat for these woodpeckers. In fact, they don’t even have to be standing trees. Many of these woodpeckers are happy to drill away at fallen logs or stumps which also offers the promise of tasty insects.  Since their favorite food is carpenter ants and carpenter ants are often the culprits behind dead trees it makes sense the woodpeckers would feel at home around them. Dead trees = breakfast, lunch & dinner!

Diet & Feeding Behavior

Pileated woodpeckers prefer to eat insects over any other type of food. They will peck away under the bark of the tree to get at the insects and scoop them in with their long tongue.

Carpenter ants are clearly their favorite. According to audubon.org, more than 60% of their diet comes from carpenter ants.

Following carpenter ants, other insects they will dine on include other ants, flies, beetle larvae, caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers and cockroaches. 

When insects aren’t available they’ll turn to wild fruits and nuts which is estimated to be 25% of their diet. 

As you’ll later learn, they will also eat suet and other bird food put out by fellow backyard birders.

Sounds

Before you ever see a pileated woodpecker you are more likely to hear it. They have a very distinct sound described as “Tarzan-like”. Take a listen and tell me if that doesn’t sound straight out of a Tarzan movie.

Pileated Woodpecker Call

Pileated Woodpecker Call – Recording compliments of Macaulay Library

Pileated Woodpecker Drum

This woodpecker will also drum away on hollowed wood (e.g. dead trees, cedar siding, etc) to attract a mate.

Pileated Woodpecker Drum – Recording compliments of Macaulay Library

Mating, Nesting, Eggs & Fledglings

Pileated woodpeckers are faithful birds choosing one mate for life except for when one dies. Only then will the other find a new mate. 

The mating season generally takes place between mid-May and mid-July.

When the couple is expecting it’s primarily the male who takes the burden of excavating their home. That is, he pecks away at a tree creating an oval opening and further excavating until there’s a 10-24” deep cavity to lay, incubate, and raise up the young.

The female lays 3-5 eggs each brood. They are white eggs about 1.3” x 1” in size.

Incubation is shared between males and females for about 15-18 days during which time they must be on the lookout for nest raiders such as weasels, squirrels, rat snakes, gray foxes, and American pine martens.

Both males and females also share feeding the juvenile using the standard method of regurgitation. This goes on for 24-31 days until the young woodpecker becomes a fledgling and leaves the nest to forage for food on his own. 

Immature woodpeckers remain with their parents for as long as 3 months.

I couldn’t resist sharing this video of baby pileated woodpeckers!

Predators

In addition to the natural predators that could raid the nest eggs, they may also fall prey to hawks, owls, eagles, feral cats, and coyotes.

Five Proven Ways to Attract Pileated Woodpeckers to Your Yard

If you live within the range of this amazing bird you have a good chance of spotting one as they are fairly common. They’re more likely to visit your yard if it offers elements of their natural habitat and food preferences.  

This woodpecker is relatively shy so be patient when waiting for their visit. Also, they are territorial birds often defending over 100 acres, so you shouldn’t expect more than a pair of them to visit your yard at a time.

1. Offer food They Prefer

Male pileated woodpecker enjoying suet
Male pileated woodpecker enjoying suet. Photo by Anne Spiers

During fall and winter months, your chances for attracting a pileated woodpecker to your yard increase dramatically as their favorite food choice (insects) becomes scarce. However,  many people offer bird food year-round and regularly see this woodpeckers visit their yard.

Of all the bird food people offer at the feeder, time and time again the same few types keep emerging as the most popular for attracting this bird. In order of having the greatest success they include: 

  1. Suet
  2. bark butter
  3. shelled peanuts
  4. safflower seed
  5. sunflower seed
  6. songbird fruit & nut seed mix

If you plan to offer bird food to attract these woodpeckers make sure the feeder is large enough to accommodate these large birds which are typically 16-19” long! In the photo above the bird makes the suet cage “work” but a longer one with a tail prop may be more ideal.

I’ve seen many feeding on log style feeders with holes filled with specially shaped suet “logs” or stuffed with peanuts and peanut butter. Generally these feeders are at least as long as the bird accommodating them quite nicely.

2. Avoid clearing dead, dying, or fallen trees

A bluebird couple would love to move into one of these abandoned woodpecker cavities.
Looks like woodpeckers have enjoyed this dead tree and as a bonus, the remaining cavities offer a nesting place for bluebirds.

Dead, dying or fallen trees offer the ideal environment for a them to forage for food and establish a nesting place. If you’re serious about attracting one to your yard, resist the urge to haul away the fallen trees and knock down the dead ones.  

3. Plant fruit-bearing trees & shrubs

holly bush
Holly – a native plant for wild birds.

Although not something you can offer immediately, planting fruit trees and shrubs in and around your yard will pique the interest of a nearby pileated woodpecker and effortlessly provide food year after year. Try planting some of these fruit bearing plants:

  • Greenbrier
  • Hackberry
  • Sassafras
  • Blackberries
  • Sumac
  • Holly
  • Dogwood
  • Persimmon
  • Elderberry

They also dine on poison ivy but I don’t recommend purposely planting this in or around your yard!

4. Have Water Available

All birds need water to drink and bathe in. Pileated woodpeckers are no different. If a natural source of water is not available nearby consider installing a pond – even a small patio pond will attract wild birds. 

A birdbath is another viable option.  Birds are drawn to moving water so adding a fountain to the birdbath could increase your chances of attracting one.

5. Hang a nesting box

pileated woodpecker near nesting box birdhouse
Pileated woodpecker investigating a birdhouse. Photo by Anne Spiers

There have been reported instances where a pileated woodpecker has used a man-made nesting box.

According to nestwatch.org, they may use a nest box if it’s located in a forested area that lacks dead or dying trees greater than 21″ in diameter.

So, if your yard fits the bill (pun intended) you may enhance your chances of attracting one of these magnificent woodpeckers to your yard by putting up a nesting box. Be sure to follow these guides:

  • Hang the box in the interior of your wooded area.
  • Hang the box 15-20′ high.
  • Pack the box tight with sawdust enabling some matter for the woodpecker to excavate.
  • Attach guards to deter nest-raiding predators.

Nestwatch.org provides nest box plans if you wish to build one yourself.

Maybe you’ll get lucky and have a pair move in!

Next Steps

I think you’ll agree pileated woodpeckers are worth the effort to attract to your yard. Take and apply some of the tips I provided or if you’re really serious about attracting them to your yard – apply all of them! Good luck and happy birding!


Frequently Asked Questions

How do you pronounce pileated woodpecker?

There are two popular pronunciations of a pileated woodpecker. They are:

  1. Pī-lē-ˌā-tə (PIEleated)
  2. Pi·​le·​at·​ed (PILLeated)

Are pileated woodpeckers endangered?

Although the pileated woodpecker saw a sharp decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries, today they are not endangered. Since the mid 20th century, this woodpecker has rebounded dramatically. Sightings of them are now fairly common and they are increasing in number. 

Do pileated woodpeckers migrate?

Pileated woodpeckers do not migrate. They are year-round birds found primarily in Canada, the upper midwest, eastern parts of the US, and to a lesser extent the pacific northwest.  


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Tammy Poppie

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her back yard (and repel others). In her free time, she can be found in nature kayaking, hiking, and biking always hoping to see a bird in the wild.