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Pileated Woodpecker
Dryocopus pileatus
– Family
Authors: Bull, Evelyn L., and Jerome A. Jackson
Revisors: Bull, Evelyn L., and Jerome A. Jackson

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Figure 4. Territorial call (a) and drum (b) of the Pileated Woodpecker.
Sound selections for Pileated Woodpecker can be found in the Audio Gallery, or see the full catalog of Pileated Woodpecker sound at Macaulay Library.



Young nestlings give peeping or soft churr notes (Kilham 1959a). Give a rasping begging call in response to parent blocking light coming in the nest-cavity entrance (JAJ). Make buzzing sound when <3 wk old; start to practice adult call near time of fledging. Fledged juveniles often “cluck” rapidly before being fed and communicate with parents using soft contact calls (R. Dixon pers. comm.). Calls of young can be distinguished from those of adults for 1–2 mo after leaving nest.

Vocal Array

See Table 4. Pileated Woodpecker vocalizations have been described by several authors, but generally using mnemonic devices that make it difficult to be certain 2 or more authors are referring to the same sound. Nonetheless, some descriptions include good detail of context and variation in the calls and are worth discussing here. In general the vocalizations are simple, consisting of 1–2 syllables given singly or in series. These often vary in intensity and duration depending on context. Females’ calls are higher pitched than those of males (Hoyt 1940, Kilham 1959a).

Short (1982) describes 3 basic calls: the Waa Call, the Wok Call, and the Wuk, or Long, Call (Fig. 4); also a Mewing Call. Kilham (1959a) describes 5 calls: Random Cuks; High Call; Woick, Woick Call; G-waick, G-Waick; and Hn, Hn . In addition to these, Chapman (1939) and Humphrey (1946) describe a Wichew Call. Hoyt (1957) and R. Dixon (pers. comm.) describe a soft nasal Cluck or Chuck. In the following we provide a tentative concordance for these and other descriptions that have been used and discuss the contexts in which the calls are given.

Waa Call is described by Short as a soft nasal call given during close interactions of a pair; through context, it seems to be synonymous with Kilham’s Woick, Woick .

Wok Call of Short is uttered in series of up to 8 notes at about 3 notes/s; occurs during interactions between individuals. This seems to be the High Call of Kilham which he describes as having a regular pattern of 6–8 high-pitched cuks with a terminal cuk of lower pitch. Kilham suggests these are the main breeding notes.

Wuk Call (Fig. 4a) of Short includes single notes and series of wuk used in territorial proclamation, in interactions at a distance, and by bird flying to pair member to copulate; also in alarm—a loose, irregular series of wuk notes are often given by disturbed birds. This seems to be the “loud, high-pitched, nasal ‘kuk-kuk, kuk-kuk,’ etc.” described in Chapman (1939) and the “laughing” or “cackling” call that is often heard in movies. During long flights, a Pileated Woodpecker often gives intermittent puck or wuk notes that sometimes seem to rise and fall in pitch (Sutton 1930, R. Dixon pers. comm., JAJ). These seem to be the same as the Random Cuks of Kilham and to be simply less intense versions of the Wuk Call.

Mewing Call of Short consists of somewhat whining notes given 5–6 times in a series; given in courtship, and seems to be the Hn, Hn of Kilham.

Wichew Call seems to be a greeting call given by pair members in close proximity, e.g., at a nest. One or both often give this repeated 2-syllable call which is reminiscent of calls given by Northern Flickers in a similar context.

Cluck or Chuck is a soft nasal greeting given during change-over activities at a nest.

G-waick, G-waick of Kilham is described as being shrill and loud, given when a bird encounters a rival or another pair. This seems to be a more intense version of the Woick, Woick.


Majority of vocalization is during courtship, announcing territory. Pairs maintain communication all year; they are least vocal in winter. In Florida, significant seasonal variation in the wok call, wuk series call and cackle call with a peak in mid-Mar just prior to the onset of breeding activity and dropping to low levels by early Apr when nesting occurs (Tremain et al. 2008).

Three pairs of woodpeckers exchanged wuk and wok calls from Sep through Nov in Maine, particularly prior to entering the roost in the evening and after leaving it in the morning (Kellam 2003). Increased vocalizations occurred in Oct in ne. Oregon when immatures left adults, who were likely advertising their occupied territories (ELB).

Daily Pattern Of Vocalizing

Majority of territorial calls are given in morning; birds frequently call on way to roost in evening.

Places Of Vocalizing

Birds call frequently in vicinity of nest during courtship; they also call from treetops to maximize coverage.

Social Context And Presumed Functions Of Vocalizations

See Vocal array, above.

Nonvocal Sounds

Array Of Sounds

Sounds made by striking the bill on a hard surface include drumming (Fig. 4b) and Demonstration Tapping (Short 1982, Ellison 1992). Drumming consists of 11–30 beats/burst, given at 14.5–16.8 beats/s with a speedup of about 18% at the beginning and end of a burst (Short 1982). Bursts last 0.7–3 s in duration and can be repeated at 40- to 60-s intervals for up to 3 h (Kilham 1959a). Sutton (1930) describes drumming heard in May in Pennsylvania as including a repeated sequence of “an introductory, rapidly given roll; then a pause, followed by three distinct blows; another pause; and two concluding blows.” See also description by Vickers 1914 and Ellison 1992 . Pileated Woodpecker drumming is loud and resonant as a result of the substrate selected and the force of the drumming. Both sexes drum, females apparently less frequently than males (Kilham 1959a).

Short (1982) describes 2 types of Demonstration Tapping: one is a rapid roll that lasts about 1 s, often repeated, at prospective nest sites; another is a series of taps, often given by a bird within a nest when mate approaches to take over incubating or brooding; may also occur as a double tap which may be associated with copulation or may occur at a prospective nest site. Disturbed birds will also tap loudly once or several times. Kilham (1959a) notes that “drum-tapping may sound like a low brr if the wood of the nest site is soft.” This was likely not drum-tapping, but tongue drumming (see Jackson 1994 and description of sounds made by tongue in Hoyt 1950). Demonstration tapping also heard between pair members and given on or near the roost tree during Sep--Nov in Maine (Kellam 2003).

In the process of excavating, Pileated Woodpeckers give slow, deliberate blows that are often loud; these can be imitated by striking a tree or other solid object (e.g., lens and eyepiece cover of telescope, cupped in the hand) and work well in attracting this species—often to within a few feet. This tapping does not seem to have a deliberate communicative function, but it is recognized and responded to by the birds (JAJ). Chapman (1939) also describes attracting Pileated Woodpeckers by imitating such tapping by clapping his “slightly closed palms.”


Birds drum all year but most frequently during early spring as courtship activities begin. Significant seasonal variation in drumming in Florida with a peak in mid-Mar prior to the onset of breeding activity and dropping to low levels by early Apr when birds were nesting (Tremain et al. 2008).

Daily Pattern

Drumming is most frequent in morning, but can occur through the day and increases in frequency again in late afternoon.

Place Of Sound-Making

Drumming usually occurs high on the bole of a dead tree that resonates sound.

Association Of Vocal And Nonvocal Sounds

Vocalizations are often given in association with drumming.

Social Context And Presumed Function

Drumming is used to proclaim a territory, Demonstration Tapping for communication between a pair as described above.

Behavior Food Habits