Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus): Barry Kent MacKay

The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is Canada’s largest woodpecker, approximately crow-sized. They occur in woodlands and boreal forests across Canada, and in appropriate habitat down the west coast of North America, and south through the predominately deciduous forests of the eastern U.S., deep into Florida. I have shown the female, above, a male below, and young nearly ready to leave the nest, which the birds carve out of the trunks of trees, giving it a distinctive shape, narrower at the top than at the bottom.  When they are searching for food, their strength allows them to dig deeply, even into live trees, leaving holes that are characteristically more or less in the shape of perpendicular rectangles.

Decades ago, an adult Pileated Woodpecker found in a weakened condition, unable to fly, was brought to my mother, a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation.  We called her Priscilla, and never did determine what was wrong with her – but she responded to our help, growing stronger each day.  She eventually developed enough strength to draw blood with her blows on our hands as we hand-fed her (she was otherwise a reluctant feeder).  We lived in a century old, mostly wooden heritage house famous because Group of Seven artist Fred Varley, had lived there at the end of his life.  (Footnote, I knew him, discussed art with him and he had once been on an arctic voyage with one of my mentors, bird artist T.M. Shortt; Varley’s basement studio became my own for many years.)  Anyway, as she strengthened Priscilla figured out how to open the dog crate we had kept her in.  Having a Pileated Woodpecker loose in a valued, rented wooden house was nerve-wracking, especially when she hid in the space between the hardwood main floor and the basement ceiling, and began hammering.  She would only come out when we were absent.  Eventually I was able to noose her and pull her out, protesting loudly.  Happily, she was soon completely healthy and we released her into the forest, it being a joy to do so.

They eat mostly invertebrates, including carpenter ants and various wood-boring beetles plus various fruits, nuts and berries (Audubon painted them amid wild grape). They sometimes will come to the ground, and can be attracted to bird feeders (including, one winter, my own) with suet or shortening. Pairs remain together year-round, are very territorial when breeding, and normally lay three to five eggs which both parents incubate on woodchips at the bottom of the cavity, which is then abandoned, often to be used later by other species such as Wood Ducks or owls.  The painting is in oils and is 24 by 18 inches, the birds approximately life size.  I’ve included a few studies done years ago.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay 


31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

1 thought on “Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus): Barry Kent MacKay

  1. Sophie

    Great Story. Thank you for sharing. Some really interesting facts about the Pileated Woodpecker.


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