Step 3: Field Marks

Identifying and Reporting an Ivory-billed Woodpecker

If your sighting is not within one of the states listed in step 1 or in the appropriate habitat as listed in step 2 you probably saw a Pileated Woodpecker.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America other than the imperial woodpecker of Mexico which is feared to be extinct. The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the second largest and is surprisingly common in many parts of the United States, including all areas formerly inhabited by ivory-bills. If you are seeing a large black-and-white woodpecker, it is important to carefully examine the field marks and behavior to distinguish between these superficially similar species.

Perched Pileated Woodpecker (male)

Perched Ivory-billed Woodpecker (male)

Pileated Woodpecker
N. John Schmitt
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Ivory-billed Woodpecker
N. John Schmitt
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Key identifiable differences:

  Pileated Woodpecker Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Wings White bases of primary and secondary feathers (the outermost wing feathers). Wings show dark trailing edge from above and below. Very small white patch visible on wing when perched. White secondary and inner primary feathers (the outermost wing feathers). Wings show white trailing edge from above and below. Form large white patch where wings lay on top of back of perched bird.
Plumage markings White line forms immediately behind bill, runs down neck, and onto the side of the bird. White line forms below eye, runs down neck, and onto the back of the bird.
Bill Dark horn to black, shading to yellow. Bill variable in color, often shiny, and in sunlight can reflect a lighter appearance. Larger bill, ivory in color. However, bill color is not a good field mark because light, viewing angles, and the white cheek plumage may interfere with proper identification.
Crest Male: crest entirely red, with red crown extending onto forehead.

Female: crest red extending only onto rear part of the crown.
Male: curved and pointed red crest with black forehead.

Female: curved and pointed black crest.
Size Length: 16-19 in.
Wing span: 26-30 in.
Length: 18-20 in.
Wing span: 30-33 in.
Vocalizations Contact call is loud deep kuk kuk. Both sexes use a yucka yucka yucka call similar to that of a flicker. Listen to a higher-pitched territorial call. Nasal yank yank yank has been likened to a nuthatch or a tin trumpet. Listen to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's calls and tapping.
Display Drumming Slow powerful accelerating drums that trails off at end. Usually 2-3 seconds in duration with 1-2 series per minute (listen). Loud distinctive 'double-rap' with the second note sounding like an echo of the first. There is about 70 miliseconds between the two notes.
Range Distribution of the Pileated Woodpecker. (Source: The Birds of North America Online). Approximate boundary of the early historical range of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the United States and Cuba. Adapted from Tanner 1942 and Jackson 2004. (Source: The Birds of North America Online).

Note that the pattern of white on the wings of a Red-headed Woodpecker is similar to that of the ivory-bill. It displays a white "saddle" when perched, and the trailing edges of the extended wings also show white. However the Red-headed Woodpecker is considerably smaller than the ivory-bill, on average about 9.5 inches versus 19.5 inches.

Based on the information on this page and in steps 1 and 2, if you think you saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, please continue with step 4 »

If the field marks of your bird did not correspond with those of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, you probably saw a Pileated Woodpecker. For more information about the Pileated Woodpecker, please visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Online Bird Guide.

We hope you'll record your sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers at eBird, a free online checklist program that allows you to contribute sightings of any bird species to a continentwide database accessible by scientists, conservationists, and other bird watchers.

To receive the latest updates about the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, visit The Big Woods Conservation Partnership web site at or sign up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's free eNews updates. Just type your email address into the box under "Join Our eNews Group" at You can unsubscribe at any time. If you have questions, please contact us at