Pileated Woodpeckers in Winter: Where they Live & What they Eat

Inside: Learn about the pileated woodpecker in winter – where they live, what they eat, and the best bird feeder for this huge bird.

I don’t know about you, but when winter rolls around I often wonder about our feathered friends. Where do they go in winter? What do they eat in winter? 

Today I’m sharing my findings on the pileated woodpecker in winter. Where do pileated woodpeckers live in winter? What do pileated woodpeckers eat in winter? What about suet? Other woodpeckers love suet, what about the pileated? 

After more than 20 years as a birder, I’ve attracted nearly every bird to my backyard – at least those in my area. The pileated woodpecker is not one of them. I’ve seen one in the woods while hiking, but never in my yard. They prefer wooded areas with tall, dead trees and that does not describe my yard. 

Perhaps it’s the elusiveness of the pileated woodpecker that draws my attention. Either way, I dove into the world of this amazing giant woodpecker. In this article, I share a window into this bird’s winter world. 

Where do pileated woodpeckers live in winter?

Pileated woodpeckers are year-round birds that don’t migrate outside their range. While many wild birds head south for the winter, this unique woodpecker stays relatively put.

They may make small movements within their range, referred to as “seasonal movements” or “short/medium distance migrants”, but don’t leave the borders on the range map.

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

Wintertime presents challenges for pileated woodpeckers, related to finding food and shelter, that motivates some of them to move elsewhere within their range. Here are some examples of seasonal movement:

  • Pileated woodpeckers in northern Canada will move to southern Ontario, US New England states, Great Lakes area, and/or coastal islands for the winter.
  • Pileated woodpeckers in the west mountainous regions may move to lower elevations in winter. 

What do pileated woodpeckers eat in the winter?

Given their choice, pileated woodpeckers prefer to eat carpenter ants – even in winter! In fact, according to audubon.org, more than 60% of their diet comes from carpenter ants! 

Carpenter ant colonies may go dormant in winter if the temperature is low enough, but they do not die. This makes them fair game to satisfy a hungry pileated woodpecker.

pileated woodpecker climbing tree in winter
Female pileated woodpecker. Photo by Anne Spiers

North America’s largest woodpecker, the pileated, has uniquely designed beaks, tongues, and feet/toes which enable them to drill under the tree bark and draw out insects from beneath. This is their primary method for dining on carpenter ants.

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pileated woodpecker climbing tree in winter

Do pileated woodpeckers eat suet?

Yes, pileated woodpeckers eat suet.

Specifically, they’ll eat “cakes of suet” which are commercially or homemade suet intended for wild birds.

What is suet? 

Suet is the raw, hard fat of beef, lamb, or mutton found around the loins and kidneys. 

What’s interesting is pileated woodpeckers will eat suet but they won’t eat carrion which is the original source of suet – a dead animal carcass with its inners exposed. Talk about picky eaters!

What are “suet cakes”? 

Suet cakes are commercially made (or homemade if you’re so inclined) comprised of beef suet and combined with various bird-friendly food including:

  • Bird seed (all types)
  • Peanuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Mealworms
  • Dried Fruit (e.g. raisins)
  • Rolled oats
  • Millet
  • Cornmeal

And sometimes other forms of solid fats such as peanut butter or lard.

Suet cakes are formed into solid squares or rectangles and offered to wild birds in a special suet feeder.

I like this suet cake variety pack. Woodpeckers, including pileated, love them! 

Recommended Suet Cakes for Pileated Woodpeckers


Best Pileated Woodpecker Feeder

Offering suet is an awesome way to attract pileated woodpeckers or just generally help them out in the winter. It provides the fat and protein they need as they expend a lot more energy surviving the elements.

There are hundreds of suet feeders available these days. When shopping for a pileated woodpecker suet feeder your primary goal should be choosing the one they’ll actually use!

Because they’re such large birds (16-19” long) and equipped with long tails (that they use to rest against trees when they’re foraging for insects), the best and most ideal feeder for pileated woodpeckers is large and has a tail prop.

Smaller suet cages may entice them but they won’t be very comfortable and may not stick around long.

Here is my favorite pileated woodpecker suet feeder. It’s the perfect size for a large bird (it’s 23” long!), holds the suet perfectly, and is made of materials that are very easy to clean. 

Birds Choice Suet Feeder

Tucson Designs Tail Prop Feeder

pileated woodpecker suet feeder

Next Steps

Understanding how the pileated woodpecker and other wild birds manage through winter can help us, humans, better appreciate our own food and shelter availability. 

Pileated woodpeckers and other birds don’t need our help in the winter but if you’re like me and love to see them up close, why not offer food they love? Better yet, provide it in a feeder that’s “just their size”.