ID Tips: Ivory-billed Woodpecker vs. Pileated Woodpecker

One of the most controversial topics in birding is whether the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists, or if it is extinct. It is/or was the largest species of woodpecker north of Mexico, and the 3rd largest in the world. The last universally accepted sighting was around the 1940s when a team from Cornell took video, photographed and recorded audio from a nesting pair of Ivory-bills. However, there have been alleged reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since then, including audio recordings and some video evidence that is left up to the interpretation of the viewer to decide what it is. Many of these reported sightings are actually of the similar looking and common Pileated Woodpecker, or other woodpecker species. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are thought to live or have lived in very specific habitats the Southern United States and Cuba, possibly only in Virgin Bottomland Hardwood forests in the US, although some argue that they have could also live in other habitats. Either way, if you’re out searching for Ivory-bills or just want to know how to tell them apart from the similar Pileated Woodpecker, here are the differences between the two species. 

Both Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker males have a red crest, white lines on their neck, and black and white on their wings. A male Ivory-billed Woodpecker would have a much more noticeable Ivory-colored bill, and a line on the neck extending down the back on both sides. The  Pileated would also have multiple white lines near their eye compared to the single line near the eye of the Ivory-bill. Additionally Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would have a white triangle visible on the lower back, from the folded wings, which would be black on the Pileated. I’ve heard this referred to as the Pileated looking like it’s wearing a Black backpack and the Ivory-billed looking like it’s wearing a white backpack. As far as size, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would also be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. A female Ivory-billed woodpecker would have the same color pattern as the male except with an all black crest that may be recurved, such as Cindy Lou who’s hair. A female Pileated will still have some red on their crest.

In flight, when the wings are viewed from below, the Pileated will have more white visible on the leading edge of the wing where on an Ivory-billed Woodpecker it would be on the leading and trailing edge of the wing, appearing more white overall. When the open wings are viewed from above, the Pileated will have crescents of white in the middle of the wing, while the Ivory-billed will have white visible on the trailing edge of the wing. It is also thought that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would have faster wingbeats compared to a Pileated Woodpecker and make faster swooping motions to land on the trunks of trees.

Another bird that could be mistaken for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker because it also appears to have a white backpack and white on the trailing edge of its wings, however they would have an all Red head and be much smaller than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be, unless the birds is a juvenile, which may have less red on its head. 

Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus showing “white backpack” on lower wings and red head.

The calls of both Ivory-billed and Pileated Woodpeckers are also very different, with Ivory-billed Woodpecker making what are called “Kent” calls, and doing double knocks as opposed to the Pileated Woodpecker’s call and rapid drumming. I’ve heard people say that other birds such as Blue Jays could mimic the sounds of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers but I have not yet personally heard one doing so. 

One of the more advanced identification differences between Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Pileated Woodpeckers is that because the birds are members of different genus’ they perch on a tree trunk differently. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is in the Campephalus genus, which means due to their larger size their “ankle will appear to rest on the tree, where in the Pileated it normally appears to be held more away from the tree. This can be seen in the below image of a Pale-billed Woodpecker from Costa Rica, which is also in the Campephalus genus. Seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would likely look more similar to seeing a Pale-billed woodpecker as opposed to seeing a Pileated Woodpecker.  The neck of Campephalus woodpeckers may also seem linger and more thin, compared to the thicker and stubbier looking neck of a Pileated Woodpecker.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Campephilus guatemalensis in Costa Rica showing “ankle” appearing closer towards tree trunk and long, thin neck.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have reportedly been seen in the last 40 years in the Big Woods of Arkansas, the Pearl River in Louisiana, the Choctawhatchee River in Florida, and more. This is and would not likely be a bird you would see at your bird feeder or in urban areas. Please do you research before claiming you have seen or heard one in unlikely habitats. With that being said you are always welcome to send us possible images, videos, or sound recordings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers to Please  be sure to rule out all other common species first though. 

Learn all about how to identify Ivory-billed Woodpeckers compared to Pileated Woodpeckers in video form

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