A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Our largest woodpecker--and the largest North American woodpecker, assuming Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is truly extinct. At up to about 18 inches high, substantially bigger than any of our other woodpeckers. Fairly common in dense woods. Occurs year-round, but encountered less commonly than our smaller woodpeckers because it is sparsely distributed, occupying large foraging territories. A pair of breeding Pileated Woodpeckers requires more than 100 acres for success, according to Fix and Bezener, but numbers appear to be increasing in our area. Sometimes shows up in wooded suburbs and in large parks. Breeds in suitable habitat throughout the county (most of the county except the central Santa Rosa plain and the unforested southern areas). Makes its own nesting holes, which, when abandoned, are used by a number of other species. Makes characteristically large, oval holes or rectangular holes with rounded edges. Feeds mostly on carpenter ants and boring beetles, but also eats berries and nuts.  

Often identified by its voice rather than by sight. Makes a loud series of descending notes that is often described as having a laughing quality (the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker is a Pileated Woodpecker). Voice reminiscent of and often confused with Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), but louder and often described as more irregular or wilder. May also suggest Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Often calls in flight. The National Geographic guides note that Northern Flicker gives its similar call only during breeding season. Pileated Woodpecker makes  a very loud drumming that immediately identifies this bird; no other local woodpecker is as loud. Both the voice and the drumming carry long distances. Flies fairly smoothly using deep wing beats--does not show the strongly undulating flight of most other woodpeckers. 

While the voice may be confused with those of other birds, Pileated Woodpecker is unlikely to be confused with any other bird visually. Large (about the size of a crow), mostly black, but with a large, bright red crest. Face pattern differs in males and females. Both have a thin white "eyebrow," a thick black eyestripe, and white below that, extending from the bill nearly to the back of the head and then in a stripe down the neck to the "shoulder." Males, however, have a red malar stripe, or mustache; females have a black malar stripe. Crest somewhat smaller in female, and note that the red of the crest extends to the forehead in the male, while females have a black forehead. White on side of neck may be splotchy. Most field guides show males and females with amber eyes, but Stokes notes that females may have dark irises. The bird in the photo above is a male. Both sexes may show a small white patch in the wing when perched (often hidden) but all birds show conspicuous white wing patches in flight from above and mostly white wing linings from below (with a black trailing edge).

There appears to be no consensus on whether this bird's name should be pronounced "pi-lee-ated" or "pie-lee-ated." I grew up saying the former.

Selected county sightings: Spring Lake (September 2, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (September 1, 2012, Rob O'Donnell); Spring Lake (July 1, 2012, Jennifer Jacobs); Pine Flat Rd. (June 30, 2012, Alan Wight); Spring Lake (April 18, 2012, Ruth Rudesill); Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (March 3, 2012, Robert and Edie Jackson)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 80

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 285

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 97

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 292

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 324

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. XX

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 360

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 238

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. XX

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 218

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 4, 150, 157, 174-175

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 48

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 216

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 234

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 222

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 273

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 448

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 242

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Pileated Woodpecker



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Pileated Woodpecker (male), September 2, 2012, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa

Pileated Woodpecker

Drycopus pileatus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 1, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County