Few bird names can be as confusing to pronounce as pileated – as in pileated woodpecker, pileated finch, pileated flycatcher, and pileated parrot. Of course, woodpecker, finch, flycatcher, and parrot are easy enough to pronounce, but what is the right way to say pileated?
Before understanding the pronunciation, it is important to understand what pileated really means. The word “pileated” is an adjective form of the word “pileate” which means having a pileus. A pileus is a type of distinctive cap, a brimless, relatively tall or pointed conical hat worn in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, as well as surrounding areas. These caps were initially felt, but later were cast in bronze. Today, the word pileus also refers to the softly pointed cap of a mushroom or toadstool, which has the same distinctive cone-like shape. Similar shapes – the bell of a jellyfish, or certain cloud formations, can also be called a pileus.
But what does this have to do with pileated birds? A bird with the name “pileated” has a distinctive cap, crest, or crown, and its head shape can have that cone-like feature when the crest is raised.
Understanding where the word comes from is a good start to pronouncing it, and there are several ways to pronounce pileated. Breaking the word down into syllables is the first step.
Each pronunciation can be technically correct, but different speakers tend to pronounce the name differently depending on their native language and foreign language experience. Overall, the sweet first syllable PIE (rhymes with my, buy, shy, fry, sky, and try) is generally more common, though PILL (rhymes with fill, mill, kill, dill, skill, and bill) is equally acceptable and understood. Both native English and second-language English speakers may use either pronunciation. The third option, with PEE (rhymes with me, key, sea, be, flea, and ski) leading the pronunciation, is less common and tends to be used more by non-native English speakers with far less English experience or whose native languages are more remote from English pronunciations.
More confusion can come into play when the syllables of the word are adjusted. While a four-syllable pronunciation is most common, three-syllable pronunciations are not at all unheard of, and still use similar overall pronunciation to the four-syllable variations.
Ultimately, none of these pronunciations are entirely correct, and none are entirely wrong. It is generally believed that the PIE pronunciation more closely mimics the original etymology of the word, as the pileus hat design is almost universally pronounced with the long “I” sound. Personally, I tend to prefer the four-syllable PILL pronunciation, but ultimately, all pronunciation comes down to personal preference. Still, language can and does change over centuries and between cultures, and regardless of how you actually pronounce these birds’ names, so long as you make yourself understood, you’re pronouncing it properly!
This discussion of how to pronounce pileated is very interesting to a word person like me. I learn primarily through verbal distinctions and verbal organization.
Great birders, however, seem to have extraordinarily acute visual abilities that find verbal explication unnecessary or even difficult or perhaps distracting from what they see (truly and magnificently) as the main visual point. .
Serious birders can strike novice birders as contemptuous, and I think it may lie in this difference in learning styles and learning genius – that some people are extraordinarily visual while others, although visually able, are not extraordinarily visual or primarily visual.
I would say the same of a birder friend who is extraordinarily aural – she is the kind of person who has no need of the ability to read music to learn music. She birds by ear with ease and total confidence, and is, for her own purposes, unneedful, of giving what she hears any verbal description at all.
(I recommend Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences on this topic.)
Back to the pronunciation of pileated! Some birders can be very dismissive of the “wrong” pronunciation of this critter, I say it the way my mother said it. I like the way you accept all comers without judgment! But even more, I appreciated your deep investigation of the word, its origin, and the varietals of its pronunciation.
I have discovered your work this morning on The Spruce and BeYourOwnBirder and find it so helpful. The deep verbal distinctions you make give me a much needed entree to birding .
Thank you for your very original and unusual work. You do, when exploring an idea, what Alice Munro would call “investigations”. Very helpful to me, who lives in the verbal dimension first, the visual second, and the aural third.
I would not describe my visual and aural abilities as compromised. It’s just that my brain has a verbal framework for lodging information that works way better than the visual or aural. So the way you communicate, with great attention to verbal and logical distinction, is so very welcome! Looking forward to reading more.
Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment, Betsy! I agree with you that “visual” birding is the most prominent, but it certainly is far from the only way to enjoy birds – or all of nature, for that matter. I do strive to keep a non-judgmental perspective here on Be Your Own Birder, as I myself have been subject to birding-related criticism many times for not doing it the way others may choose to do it. I hope that my continued work will encourage others to enjoy birding – in their own ways!
Melissa, another bird name in question is the caracara. I have heard it pronounced car uh car uh and care uh care uh. Also both of these without the second syllable. so car car uh.
I would love some help with this one.
Great idea, Rosa! I’ll definitely add it to the list! I have another in mind for next week already, but it will be coming!
Love these discussions!! Thanks! I just recently moved to a ranch in Texas and I am experiencing an awakening concerning birds. I just discovered the pileated woodpecker identification yesterday. I’ve been hearing its call for six months ( more with the cooler fall weather!) and love it. It actually reminded me of bird sounds that a hard while on safari in Africa last year. Now I need to know, is a highly aided woodpecker the same as a red headed woodpecker. Off to research some more. Ha ha