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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Pileated Woodpecker - Dryocopus pileatus

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
PIF: 2


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
A crested, black woodpecker with wing span of about 70 cm. More or less uniformly black body with a white line extending down the neck from the bill to underwing area; white throat and line above the eye; black through the eye. Male with a vivid red crest extending from the bill to the nape and a red moustache mark extending from the bill. Female slightly smaller than male and with gray to brown forehead, red crest, and no red moustache mark. In all sex and age groups, a few gray-white bars can be found on the flanks. In flight, wings show black leading and trailing edges and white near the center of the wing close to the body. Juveniles have duller, more loosely textured feathers; primary 10 is longer, broader, and less pointed. Voice a loud, characteristic "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" drumming a deep resonant roll that carries a kilometer or more (Bull and Jackson 1995).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Except for the probably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) of the southeastern United States and Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis) of montane western Mexico, the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America. Large size and prominent red crest distinguish this woodpecker from all other woodpecker species in Montana.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
The Pileated Woodpecker is found across forested North America north of Mexico, from interior British Columbia south in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges to central California and south in the northern Rocky Mountains to northeastern Oregon, central Idaho and western Montana, and east across the southern third of Canada to Nova Scotia, and south throughout the U.S. east of the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast.

Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 3572

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Permanent resident. Montane birds may move to lower elevations in autumn (Burleigh 1921, 1972).

Late successional stages of coniferous or deciduous forest preferred, but also younger forests that have scattered, large dead trees (Bull and Jackson 1995). In forests of northwestern Montana dominated by western larch and Douglas-fir, Pileated Woodpecker nests (113 in 97 trees) were in western larch (52), ponderosa pine (18) black cottonwood (15), trembling aspen (7), western white pine (3), grand fir (1), and Douglas-fir (1). Nest-tree diameter at breast height (DBH) averaged 73 cm (29 in) and height averaged 29 m (95 ft). Roost trees were similar to nest trees; both typically were snags (81% and 78%, respectively) with broken tops (77% in both categories). Old-growth stands containing western larch were common nesting sites; old-growth ponderosa pine, black cottonwood and trembling aspen were locally important but more restricted in distribution (McClelland and McClelland 1999).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Diet consists primarily of wood-dwelling ants and beetles that are extracted from down woody material and from standing live and dead trees. Fruit and mast of wild nuts are eaten when available (Bull and Jackson 1995).

Heartwood decay, which softens the wood, is important for enabling nest excavation in large larches by Pileated Woodpeckers (McClelland and McClelland 1999). BBS data indicate non-significant annual increases in numbers of 1.3% in Montana and 1.6% survey-wide during 1980-2009; there was also a non-significant annual increase in numbers of 1.4% in Montana and a significant annual increase of 2.2% survey-wide during 1999-2009. Montana CBC data for the winters 1979-80 to 2009-10 show a similar general increase in birds/party hour until 2005. High total count was 93 (0.058/party hour) on 11 counts in 2002-03; low total count was 12 (0.01/party hour) on 5 counts in 1979-80.

Reproductive Characteristics
Dead trees provide favored sites in which to excavate nest cavities. Only large diameter trees have enough girth to contain a nest. Reuse of a prior nest cavity is rare; two cases were reported in northwestern Montana: one cavity was used successfully in three different years (1975, 1976, 1990), another in four years (1978, 1979, 1980, 1983) (McClelland and McClelland 1999). Clutch size is typically 4 semi-glossy white, broadly oval eggs (Bull and Jackson 1995). Near Fortine, excavation of one nest cavity extended from early March to end of May, another was under construction on 28 April and the young left the nest on 5 July (Weydemeyer 1975). Egg records probably similar to Minnesota: early to late May.

No known active management specific to Pileated Woodpecker is ongoing in Montana, although Pileated Woodpecker has been used as an indicator nesting species for old-growth. The USFS maintains management areas of 120 ha (300 acres) in old-growth forests for nesting and an additional 120 ha (300 acres) with > 5 snags/ha for foraging in Oregon and Washington (Bull and Jackson 1995). Recommendations for managing forests of western larch and Douglas-fir in northwestern Montana for timber harvest as well as hole-nesting birds (McClelland et al. 1979) include 1) providing 20-40 ha (50-100 acres) with a significant old-growth component of western larch, ponderosa pine, or black cottonwood within each 410 ha (1000 acres) of planning units to meet long-term nesting and feeding needs for each pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, 2) old growth should be well-scattered rather than grouped into adjacent areas, 3) old-growth units should be roughly square, 4) maintain old-growth in areas without roads or campgounds, 5) retain logs, snags, culls, and their replacements in the remaining 365 ha (900 acres) of planning unit to provide foraging substrate and nest sites, 6) no cutting of snags for firewood unless they are < 38 cm (15 inches) DBH; discourage use of larch, ponderosa pine, and black cottonwood. The Pileated Woodpecker in western larch forests of Montana is closely associated with forest values (fire, insects, and heartwood decay) often considered characteristic of "unhealthy" forest conditions (McClelland and McClelland 1999). Forest management that benefits Pileated Woodpeckers will need to recognize these components as important parts of a truely healthy forest ecosystem.

Threats or Limiting Factors
Timber harvest has the most significant impact on habitat and populations. Removal of large-diameter live and dead trees, downed woody material, and of canopy closure eliminates nest and roost sites, foraging habitat, and cover.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bull, E.L. and J.A. Jackson. 1995. Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). In: A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Number 148. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and The American Ornithologist's Union, Washington, D.C.
    • Burleigh, T.D. 1921. Breeding Birds of Warland, Lincoln County, Montana. Auk 38:552-565.
    • Burleigh, T.D. 1972. Birds of Idaho. The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, ID. 467 pp.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • McClelland, B. R., and P. T. McClelland. 1999. Pileated Woodpecker nest and roost trees in Montana: Links with old-growth and forest “health". Wildlife Society Bulletin 27:846-857.
    • McClelland, B.R., S.S. Frissel, W.C. Fischer, and C.H. Halvorson. 1979. Habitat management for hole-nesting birds in forests of western larch and Douglas-fir. Journal of Forestry 77(8):480-483.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1975. Half-century record of the breeding birds of the Fortine area, Montana: Nesting data and population status. Condor 77:281-287.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Gem Corporations, USA, Helena, MT., 1996, Application for an Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operations: Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, Granite County, Montana. August 1996
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Bull, E. 1987. Ecology of the pileated woodpecker in northeastern Oregon. J. Wildl. Manage. 51:472-481.
    • Bull, E. L., and E. C. Meslow. 1977. Habitat requirements of the pileated woodpecker in northeastern Oregon. J. of Forestry:335-337.
    • Bull, E. L., S. R. Peterson, and J. W. Thomas. 1986. Resource partitioning among woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, OR. Research Note PNW-444. 19 pp.
    • Bull, E.L. and J.A. Jackson. 1995. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Species Account Number 148. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds
    • Bull. E. L., R. S. Holthausen, and M. G. Henjum. 1992. Roost trees used by pileated woodpeckers in northeastern Oregon. J. Wildl. Manage. 56:786-793.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Dickson, D. C. 1991. Systematic wildlife observations on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Missoula, MT. 14 pp. plus appendices and photographs.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Farmer, Patrick J., and Thomas W. Butts, Western Technology & Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, McDonald Project Terrestrial Wildlife Study, November 1989 - November 1993. April 1994. In McDonald Gold Project: Wildlife & Fisheries. [#18]. Seven-up Pete Joint Venture, Lincoln, MT. Unpub. No date.
    • Flath, Dennis and David Dickson. 1994 Systematic wildlife observations on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area 1991-1993. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
    • Hutto, R. L. 1995. Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in Northern Rocky Mountain (U.S.A.) conifer forests. Conservation Biology 9: 1041-1058.
    • Hutto, R. L., and J. S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-32, Ogden, Utah.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar’s Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Martin, Steve A., ECON, Inc., Helena, MT., 1982, Flathead Project Wildlife Report, 1981-1982. November 30, 1982.
    • McClelland, B. R. 1979. The Pileated Woodpecker in forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Pages 283-299 in The role of insectivorous birds in forest ecosystems (J. G. Dickson, R. N. Conner, R. R. Fleet, J. C. Kroll, and J. A. Jackson, Eds). Academic Press, New York.
    • Mellen, T. K., E. C. Meslow, and R. W. Mannan. 1992. Summertime home range and habitat use of pileated woodpeckers in western Oregon. J. Wildl. Manage. 56:96-103.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Northrop, Devine and Tarbell, Inc. 1995. Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids Hydroelectric Developments, 1994 Wetland Mapping and Assessment Study, Volume I of II. 27 pp. plus appendices.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
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Citation for data on this website:
Pileated Woodpecker — Dryocopus pileatus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on July 26, 2016, from