Why the Pileated Woodpecker’s Nesting Time Starts so Early

Inside: Discover the pileated woodpecker’s nesting time, the 8 stages they go through each year as part of their nesting cycle, and why their nesting is unique.

Spring is a magical time, especially for us backyard birders. Birds that migrated south for the winter are on their way back home, breeding season is starting, a time of new beginnings and warmer weather. And, it’s nesting time for many wild birds.

The pileated woodpecker is unique in the bird world because its nesting time begins earlier than other birds. Each year the pair constructs a new tree cavity for the nest which can take up to 6 weeks to complete. Hence the need to start nesting activities early.

Note: In rare cases, the pileated woodpecker will use a man-made nesting box but prefer to excavate their own nesting cavity in a tree.


I’ve been a backyard birder for more than 20 years and am wildly fascinated by the pileated woodpecker ever since one flew past me when I was out hiking years ago. Since then I’ve been researching its habits and behaviors in hopes of increasing my chances of seeing one again.

In this article, I’d like to share the information I learned about its nesting habits. Let’s get started…

First, Pair Up

Before nesting can begin for the pileated woodpecker first they engage in pair formation (if it’s the first breeding season for the male or female) followed by mating rituals.

In this article, I’ll go deep into this woodpecker’s nest-specific activities and only briefly cover the mating activities since they’re covered in more detail in The Pileated Woodpecker’s Seductive Mating Behaviors.

Pileated Woodpecker Nesting Time

Pileated woodpecker’s nesting time starts as early as February each year.

The southern and coastal regions start their season earlier than the northern and higher-elevation parts of the range but the general timeline is similar.

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

The nesting cycle of the pileated woodpecker lasts about 9 months (February to November). For male or female birds that are not yet paired (e.g. this is their first breeding season), pair formation precedes the nesting cycle.

The Pileated Woodpecker Nesting Cycle

Within the nesting cycle, the pileated woodpecker pair go through several stages including:

  1. Find nesting site 
  2. Excavate cavity
  3. Mate
  4. Lay eggs
  5. Incubate
  6. Hatch eggs
  7. Feed & care for young
  8. Young fledge the nest

Here’s a handy dandy graphic for reference:

Pileated woodpecker mating and nesting cycle in a graphic
Pileated Woodpecker’s Nesting Cycle

1. Find Nesting Site

Around the middle of February pileated woodpecker pairs begin scouting for the perfect nesting site – inside a tree! 

They do this by hopping from tree to tree within their 2-mile territory, tapping on each one, and listening for insects. After all, babies require a lot of food to grow and insects are what they eat!

2. Excavate Cavity

Once the nesting site has been decided the pair begin excavating a cavity as their nest. This is typically in March.

Excavating their 8” wide x 10-25” deep hole can take 3-6 weeks. 

3. Mate

In April the pileated woodpecker starts to exhibit mating behaviors.

4. Lay Eggs

In May, following successful fertilization, the female begins laying the eggs in the excavated cavity. She’ll lay up to 4 eggs usually 3 days apart.

5. Incubate Eggs

May is a busy time. The pair take turns incubating the eggs. Incubation takes about 18 days.

According to the Breeding Biology of the Pileated Woodpecker—Management Implications report, by the United States Department of Agriculture, the female incubates during the day and the male at night.

6. Hatch Eggs

By the end of May, all eggs have hatched and the parents are brooding continually feeding their nestlings.

7. Feed & Care for Young

June is spent caring for the young. They eat a lot of food and often! 

8. Young Fledge the Nest

Starting as early as June, the young begin to fledge the nest. They spend several months practicing to be an adult (practice flying, foraging for food) while either mom or dad, or both, are nearby watching.  

By November the young leave their parents – they’re officially on their own. They will excavate their first roosting cavity to brood in through winter. 

Next Steps

Pileated woodpeckers are fascinating in every way. They look so unique, they sound completely different than any other bird, and they have their own form of mating rituals and behaviors and a longer than normal nesting time.

If you live within the range of this amazing woodpecker you stand a good chance of seeing one or attracting a pair to your area. If this intrigues you or you just want more juicy details about the bird that made Woody the Woodpecker famous, check out my article: 5 Proven Way to Attract Pileated Woodpeckers.


Sources

Shunk, S. 2016. Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, NY

Bull, E. & Meslow, E. 1988. Breeding Biology of the Pileated Woodpecker—Management Implications. US Department of Agriculture

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 backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers.