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Do Pileated Woodpeckers Destroy Trees?

The Pileated Woodpecker is a magnificent bird with its eye-catching crest and impressive size. It is definitely a bird that grabs your attention. Like other woodpecker species, the Pileated Woodpecker is often seen drilling into trees, sometimes creating huge holes. But do Pileated Woodpeckers destroy trees? In this article we will learn a bit about these large woodpeckers, why they drill into trees and how much damage it actually causes. 

What Are Pileated Woodpeckers?

Before we get into why these birds seem to have a grudge against trees, let’s first take a look at the bird itself and learn a bit more about them. 

The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a striking bird known for its impressive size. With a length of about 16 to 19 inches, it is the largest woodpecker in North America. This species has a distinct appearance, featuring bold black and white plumage with a vibrant red crest on its head. The females and males of the species look extremely similar, except the males have a bright red stripe on their cheeks.

pileated woodpecker on a tree stump
Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpeckers are primarily found in mature forests across the eastern and northern parts of North America. They thrive in habitats filled with large, standing dead trees, which are an ideal location for nesting and foraging. They consume plenty of insects, particularly carpenter ants, and they use their large, heavy bill to excavate deep into the wood looking for food. 

Why Do Pileated Woodpeckers Drill On Trees?

There are three main reasons that woodpeckers peck on trees. Let’s look at each of the reasons below to better understand their behavior.

Pileated Woodpeckers Use Trees For Communication

Drumming is a behavior exhibited by woodpeckers, in which they rapidly peck on trees or other objects to communicate with other woodpeckers, establish territory, attract mates, and search for food. The drumming sound is created by the rapid and repetitive tapping of the woodpecker’s beak against the hard surface, producing a distinctive and often loud drumming noise.

Trees work well for this, especially dead and hollow trees that create a more resonate sound that carries far. They will also utilize utility poles or metal surfaces like chimney caps and metal roofs. 

When they drum, the Pileated Woodpecker does so slowly, before accelerating the speed and then trailing off at the end. This is one way to distinguish the Pileated Woodpeckers from other species, who typically drum using a steady beat. Pileated Woodpeckers can also drum up to 17 beats per second. 

Drumming can cause a little bit of damage, but all-in-all is not a very destructive activity. The purpose is just to create sound, not to dig far into the tree. So drumming may leave a small mark on the tree but will certainly not destroy it. 

pileated woodpecker holes
Pileated Woodpecker damage | image by:

Pileated Woodpeckers Drill To Look For Carpenter Ants

Another reason that Pileated Woodpeckers drill into trees is because they are looking for food. Like many other types of woodpeckers, the Pileated Woodpecker uses its beak to chip away bark, excavating into trees in search of their next meal. While insects aren’t the only food these woodpeckers eat, they do make up the majority of their diet.

Specifically, carpenter ants make up over half of the Pileated Woodpecker’s diet! These woodpeckers are experts at selecting trees that are home to these insects, as well as termites and wood-boring beetle larvae. Rather than crawling around on the exterior of the tree, these insects are found tunneling within the wood. Thus, the Pileated Woodpecker uses its powerful beak and long tongue to chip away at the tree and lap up large concentrations of these insects and larvae.  

They Create Nests In Trees By Carving Out Holes

Pileated Woodpeckers make their nests in dead or partially dead trees. The nest cavity that is carved out ranges from 10 – 24 inches deep. It takes them 3 to 6 weeks to create this nesting hole. Typically they do not reuse this hole again.

Once abandoned, these tree cavities often become nesting sites for other cavity nesting birds that aren’t able to create their own hole. Due to the size of these cavities, their nest holes may even be used by tree-nesting ducks like the wood duck.  

pileated woodpecker nest hole
Pileated Woodpecker carving nest hole into dead tree | image by Deborah Freeman via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Do Pileated Woodpeckers Actually Destroy Trees?

Now that we know a few of the reasons Pileated Woodpeckers drill into trees, let’s talk about if any of them cause actual damage to the tree. 

Drumming doesn’t cause enough damage to really harm a tree. Nest holes are significant in size, however they are not made in healthy trees. Pileated Woodpeckers choose dead trees or the dead top-end of a still alive tree for their nest holes. So while the holes would be large enough to cause damage, the trees they choose are already dead or well on their way to dying. 

The most damage Pileated Woodpeckers inflict on trees is when they are going after food. They can create huge, rectangular-shaped holes several inches wide and deep. These oblong holes are tell-tale signs that a Pileated found a pocket of tasty carpenter ants and furiously dug into the tree, exposing their tunnels. If they drill a large enough hole they can seriously damage the tree. Smaller trees without a wide trunk may even snap in half. 

So is it really the woodpeckers fault?

While these holes created when chasing after food can definitely cause permanent damage or total destruction, often the woodpecker is just speeding up a process that is already happening. To an onlooker, the tree may appear perfectly healthy until the woodpecker came and started making holes. However, think about why the holes are created. 

The woodpeckers are going after carpenter ants, termites and wood-boring beetle larvae. All these insects are bad news for wood, and would destroy the tree on their own in time. The massive, destructive holes made by these woodpeckers only occur where a huge pocket of these insects are found. An infestation. These woodpecker holes will speed up the process of killing a tree, but the trees were already under heavy attack by prey they are going after. 

pileated on old tree

What Benefits Do Pileated Woodpeckers Provide?

Not only do these woodpeckers rarely damage healthy trees, but they act as a natural way to control pests. For example, researchers have found that the Pileated Woodpecker numbers will naturally increase in areas invaded by the emerald ash borer, which is a damaging beetle that has killed millions of ash trees across North America. This suggests that Pileated Woodpeckers may actually be a natural line of defense against controlling invasive and non-native pests. 

If a Pileated is going after a tree in your yard, your wooden siding or barn, it certainly is frustrating. But in a way, they are actually alerting you to a potential insect infestation problem. Consider them an alarm bell going off and get a pest exterminator to come look as soon as possible. Not to harm the woodpecker – but to determine if you have carpenter ants or termites, and how to get rid of the bugs that will cause much more widespread damage to your property.

How Can I Protect My Trees From Pileated Woodpeckers?

For homeowners facing challenges with pileated woodpeckers, there are ways to mitigate potential issues they can cause. Providing alternative nesting sites, such as specially designed bird boxes, can redirect the woodpeckers’ attention away from your valuable trees. Additionally, maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystem in your yard can encourage a balance between woodpecker activity and the overall well-being of your property.

If you notice woodpecker damage on your trees, there is probably an internal pest issue. Getting the insect issue under control will go a long way to keeping these birds from digging into the trees. 

Deterrents May Help

There are also some deterrents that may prove helpful to keeping woodpeckers away from your properties. Placing a fake snake or owl, which are predators of woodpeckers, on your property can make these birds think twice before drilling in your trees. However, you will need to move them often.

Hanging metallic ribbon from tree branches can also deter woodpeckers from visiting. Another option is playing the distress call of Pileated Woodpeckers. However, these methods only work if the insect problem the tree is experiencing has been remedied. 

These woodpeckers typically only go after trees that are already on the decline. This means you can help keep Pileated Woodpecker damage at bay by ensuring your trees are healthy and well-maintained. 

What Not To Do When Dealing With Pileated Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are safeguarded by both state and federal regulations, and are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. This means you will need to keep a calm head when dealing with these birds. Do not trap the woodpeckers, damage their nests or eggs, kill them, or harm them in any way. You should also never try to sell or transport Pileated Woodpeckers. Doing so could result in a large fine and could even be considered a Federal offense. 

How Can I Coexist With Pileated Woodpeckers?

The Pileated Woodpecker’s ability to create massive cavities in trees may pose challenges for property owners, but knowing the benefits they can provide is vital to coexisting with these creatures. If you can find that balance of appreciation for these beneficial birds paired with practical strategies to prevent potential damage to your trees, you will reduce your stress and may even welcome woodpeckers onto your property.

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