Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Frequent Flyer: Pileated Woodpecker

Knock, knock. Who’s there?

Story by Lucy Elam  +  Photos Courtesy of Wild Birds Unlimited

It’s the pileated woodpecker! This striking bird can be heard knock-knocking on Lowcountry trees year-round. One of the biggest, boldest birds in South Carolina, the pileated (PIE-lee-ay-tid) woodpecker is nearly the size of a crow, and if its massive size isn’t enough to set it apart, its distinct white stripes and vivid scarlet crest will certainly do the trick. 

These quirky birds bore into dead trees and fallen logs in search of insects (particularly carpenter ants), leaving trademark rectangular holes in the wood. 

When the pileated woodpecker excavates a nest cavity, their heads can strike a tree’s surface at speeds up to 15 mph, at over 100 strokes per minute (equivalent to a person crashing headfirst into a tree while running at top speed). During the breeding season, the nest cavity attracts a female, and the mated pair work together to defend the territory. The male and female both incubate the eggs in the nest. When the brood is fully grown, the birds abandon the nest and will not re-use it during the next breeding season, leaving behind a ready-made home for many other species of birds. Pileated woodpeckers prefer large trees for nesting, and will sometimes visit backyard bird feeders, especially for suet.

Fun facts

  • The barbed tip of a woodpecker’s tongue is very sensitive to touch and can both detect and impale insect larvae. 
  • The woodpecker’s bill has special cells on the end that are constantly regenerating in order to repair the wear and tear of the constant hammering it takes. This keeps the bill strong and resilient, while actually allowing it to be sharpened with every blow.
  • Most woodpeckers’ tongues are two to three times longer than their bills.
  • Woodpeckers have a third eyelid to help protect their eyes from debris while drilling into trees.
  • Woodpeckers are among a very few birds that have zygodactyl feet – which means they have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards. Most birds have an arrangement of three toes forward and one backwards. This gives them a much better grip.

Where to see them

  • Audubon Newhall Preserve
  • Sea Pines Forest Preserve
  • Hilton Head Plantation

Pileated woodpecker essentials

Find a full line of feeders, seeds and accessories for backyard bird feeding at Wild Birds Unlimited in Festival Centre at Indigo Park on Hilton Head Island, which is now under new ownership. 


Share the Joy Woodpecker Box with Hot Pepper Food. It’s always a great time to attract woodpeckers. “Share the Joy” Boxes make it easy. Each comes loaded with a bird feeder, food and accessories. The woodpecker box includes the black suet cylinder feeder with a hot-pepper, no-melt SuperSuet cylinder, and an EZ-Full suet cage with a hot-pepper SuperSuet or hot-pepper SuperSuet (No-Melt).


  • Suet/suet blends
  • Mealworms