There are many varieties of woodpeckers all across North America. While there are common characteristics the birds of the woodpecker family share, each species can be quite unique! They range from small to large and plain to colorful. Some live in forests while others live in the desert. A versatile family of birds, and one of my personal favorites. Let’s look at the characteristics and behaviors that woodpeckers share, what makes them unique, then get a little introduction to each of the 17 common North American woodpecker species.
Made For Climbing
Most songbirds, perching birds, and birds of prey have three toes pointing forwards and one toe pointing back. Woodpeckers typically have two toes face forwards and two toes face back. This configuration is called Zygodactal. This enables them to grasp tree trunks with ease, and walk up the trunks vertically and balance while they hammer. Their stiff tail feathers can provide extra support and stabilization, like the kickstand on a bicycle. They have short, strong legs beneficial for foraging on tree trunks, as well as sharp strong claws on their toes for grasping bark. Right before their beaks make contact with wood, a thickened membrane closes over their eyes, protecting the eye from flying wood chips and splinters.
Woodpeckers have strong bills for drumming on hard surfaces and boring holes into trees. They can use these long sharp beaks like a chisel for excavating cavities in trees for nesting. Muscles at the base of the beak act as shock absorbers that absorb the pressure created from the force of impact. Many woodpeckers have nostrils lined with bristles to aid in filtering out dust and tiny wood chips while they are hammering away.
Woodpeckers have a long and sticky tongue that they can use to reach inside the holes they’ve drilled to grab insects. They are so long in fact, that they wrap around the woodpeckers skull through a special cavity. Many have a sharp barb on the end that can aid in “spearing” prey.
Drumming is used as a form of communication with other woodpeckers. In the spring, males “drum” by repeatedly drilling their beak on hard surfaces such as trees, metal gutters, house siding, utility poles, trash cans, etc. They do this to announce their territory and attract mates. You can recognize the difference in sound – drumming is a short burst of steady, rapid paced drills. Reminds me of a jackhammer. Whereas when looking for food or digging cavities, the pecking sounds will be spaced further apart and be more irregular.
Most species mate for one season only and work together to excavate a nest cavity, incubate their eggs and find food for the babies. Often the males will take over incubation for the nighttime hours while females will incubate during the day. In general, eggs take about two weeks to hatch. The young are ready to leave the nest in about a month and then usually stay with the adults in family groups until the end of the summer.
In some geographic areas, many different species of woodpeckers can coexist in the same habitat. This is possible if each species has their own niche and there is relatively little competition for food or nesting resources. For example smaller woodpeckers like the Downy pick insects from the crevices in bark, while larger species like the Hairy drill into the tree itself to get insects that bore into the wood. Because they aren’t taking their food from the same place, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are often found living in the same areas.
An important part of the ecosystem
Woodpeckers have important roles to play as part of the ecosystem. They can help control insect populations and keep trees healthy. There are many types of wood-boring insects, and when populations get out of control they can decimate large strands of trees. Woodpeckers will not only eat the beetles, but the larvae as well. They can reduce the infestation of a single tree by up to 60%!
There are also many species of birds and mammals that use old woodpecker cavities. Birds like screech owls, wrens, bluebirds, nuthatches and kestrels need cavities to nest in, but cannot create them on their own. Mammals such as flying squirrels and mice will also use these cavities for shelter.
How Do Woodpeckers Survive All That Head-Banging?
You may have wondered how woodpeckers can jackhammer their bills into trees all day and not turn their brain to mush. As you may expect, woodpeckers possess special physical adaptations to protect their brains. There is a lot of study on this topic and without going into too much detail of the many systems at work, here are a few of the components that go into making their drilling possible;
- Small and smooth brain
- Narrow subdural space
- Little cerebrospinal fluid in the skull to prevent the brain moving back and forth
- Plate-like bones in the skull that provide flexibility and minimize damage
- The hyoid bone wraps around the skull and every time the bird pecks, it acts as a seat-belt for the skull
- The top part of the bill is a little longer than the lower part. This “overbite”, and the materials that make up the beak, help to distribute the impact energy.
When a woodpecker strikes a tree, the impact energy is converted to “strain energy” in their body. The specialized anatomy of the woodpecker redirects this strain energy into their body instead of it all remaining in their head. 99.7% of the strain energy is directed into the body with only .3% remain in the head. The small amount in the head is dissipated in the form of heat. So while this process protects the woodpeckers brain from damage it does cause their skulls to heat up quickly. The woodpeckers combat this by taking frequent breaks in-between pecking while the heat disperses.
Scientists are still studying woodpeckers shock absorption and energy conversion techniques today to learn more about how it works and possible engineering applications for things like helmets and even cars!
17 Species of North American Woodpeckers
Let’s take a look at species information and interesting facts about the 17 species of North American woodpeckers.
Red Headed Woodpecker
Size: 7-9 inches
Identifying markings: Adults have a bright crimson head, black back, large white wing patches and a white belly. These large patches of solid color are unlike most woodpeckers, who have more intricate patterns.
Diet: Wood-boring insects and nuts which they are known to cache in the fall. Unlike many woodpeckers they spend time perching and flying out to catch insects in-flight. They have even been found storing insects like grasshoppers in cracks of wood and under roof shingles!
Habitat: Open woodlands, pine plantations, standing wood in beaver swamps, river bottoms, orchards, and swamps.
Location: Eastern half of the US although much less common in New England.
Nesting: 4-7 eggs, inside cavities in dead trees or dead branches.
Interesting Facts: Often aggressive towards other woodpeckers or any birds that approach their nest. These woodpeckers are very territorial and will attack other birds and even remove other birds eggs from nearby nests. Unfortunately, they are in decline in many areas especially the Northeastern U.S. They face the same challenge as many birds in terms of competition for nesting holes. But this species in particular makes their nests solely in dead trees, a habitat which is quickly declining. Dead or dying trees are often removed from land for firewood, to reduce fire hazard, discourage certain blight insects or simply for aesthetics.
Size: 16-19 inches (the largest North American woodpecker)
Identifying markings: Mainly black with a red crest, black and white stripped face, white stripe down the neck, and white wing linings. Males have a red “mustache”
Diet: Ants and other wood-boring insects, some berries.
Habitat: Mature forests with large trees.
Location: Eastern half of the U.S., across most of Canada, northern half of west coast.
Nesting: 3-8 eggs laid in cavities excavated from dead trunks or limbs of live trees. Cavity is lined with wood chips.
Interesting Facts: These huge woodpeckers can excavate holes up to seven inches across. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing one go to work on a tree it is quite a sight with a spray of wood chips flying out like a stump grinder. Sometimes they dig their holes so deep into the tree that they accidentally can snap small trees in half. They prefer mature woods with old large trees. Much of their habitat was lost in the early 18th and 19th century when logging took down most of the mature forests and forests were cleared to become farms. As farmlands began to decline and forests returned, the Pileated have made a comeback and seem to be adapting to younger forests and trees.
Red Bellied Woodpecker
Size: 8.5 – 10 inches
Identifying markings: Barred and speckled black and white back, light breast. They have a slightly reddish belly which gives them their name, although unless they are in the right position you’ll be hard pressed to see it! Dark red hood that extends from the beak down the neck in males, and only at the nape of the neck in females.
Diet: Insects, fruit and seeds.
Habitat: Open woodlands, farmlands, orchards, shade trees and parks. Does well in suburbs, prefers deciduous trees.
Location: Eastern half of the U.S. into southern New England.
Nesting: 3-8 eggs, laid in a cavity of dead trunk, tree limb or even utility poles.
Interesting Facts: Red bellied woodpeckers will readily visit bird feeders for suet and seeds, especially in the winter months. They can stick out their tongue up to two inches past the tip of their beak! It is long and also quite sharp, with a hard barb at the tip which they can use to spear grasshoppers and beetles. They have even been known to use this tongue to puncture oranges and lap out the pulp.
Size: 8-8.5 inches
Identifying markings: Boldly patterned black and white, prominent white cheek and barred back. Males have a tiny red spot at the back of the crown.
Diet: Wood-boring insects.
Habitat: Open pine forests.
Location: Southeastern United States.
Nesting: 2-5 eggs in decayed heartwood of living pine. Breeds in loose colonies in stands of tall pines, nest cavities may be used for many years.
Interesting Facts: This rare and unfortunately declining woodpecker is found exclusively in open pine woodlands. These unique woodpeckers seek out pine trees with red-heart disease, a fungus that affects the heartwood and makes the wood easier for the woodpeckers to remove and excavate their elaborate nesting cavities. Red heart is a fairly common affliction of trees 70 years or older but today most pine forests are cut before trees reach that age. The open pine forests themselves are declining. Today it is believed there may be only four population groups of Red-cockaded woodpeckers that exist in the world, all located in the southeastern United States. They have been listed as an endangered species since 1973.
Size: 10-14 inches
Identifying markings: Tanish-brown with black barring on the back and black spots on the belly, large black crescent-shaped marking on the breast. The under part of the wings are either yellow or red depending on the subspecies. (Yellow in the north and east, red in the south and west. Males will have a mustache on their face (black or red depending on the subspecies) while females do not.
Diet: Ants and other insects, fruit, seeds and nuts.
Habitat: Woodlands, deserts, suburbs.
Location: Northern Flicker across the entire U.S. and Canada into many areas of Mexico. Gilded Flicker very southern Nevada, throughout Arizona and into north eastern Mexico.
Nesting: 3-14 eggs laid in a cavity in a tree or cactus in dry habitats.
Interesting Facts: There are three subspecies of Flickers. The Northern Flicker is separated into “yellow-shafted” and “red-shafted” varieties. In general the yellow-shafted is found in the east and the red-shafted in the west. There is also a Gilded Flicker which is only found in the southwestern U.S. into Mexico and mainly lives in giant cactus forests.
Northern Flickers are one of the few North America woodpeckers that migrate. Birds in the northern parts of their range will move further south in the winter. Another interesting fact about Flickers is they often prefer to find food on the ground. They love ants and will dig in the dirt to find them, then use their long tongue to lap them up. In fact it is believed that they consume more ants than any other North American bird!
Size: 8-9 inches
Yellow-bellied: black and white above, white wing patch. Red crown and throat on males, females white throat.
Red-naped: A bold white slash on the wing separates it from other woodpeckers. Bold black, white and red face pattern and white mottling on the back separates it from the red-breasted sapsucker.
Red-breasted: Mostly red head and breast, bold white slash on the shoulder. Mostly black back with limited white mottling.
Williamson’s: Male is mostly black with large white wing patch, two white stripes on the face, red throat, yellow belly. Female has a brown head and black and white barred back and wings, yellow belly.
Diet: Sap, insects, berries.
Habitat: Forests, woodlands.
Yellow-bellied: Most of Canada and Mexico, eastern half of the U.S.
Red-naped: Southern British Columbia throughout western U.S. (excluding the coast) down into Mexico.
Red-breasted: Far western coast of Canada and the U.S.
Williamson’s: Along the Rocky Mountain corridor south into Mexico.
Nesting: 4-7 eggs laid in live tree cavities. They prefer Aspen trees.
Interesting Facts: There are four different sapsuckers found in North America; Yellow-bellied (mostly eastern), Red-naped (mostly western), Red-breasted (west coast only), and Williamson’s (along the Rocky Mountains). They do not actually “suck” sap, rather they lick it using small hair like bristles that protrude from their tongue. They drill rows of regularly spaced vertical and horizontal holes in the trunk of a tree. When the sap leaks out they will lick it up. The sap can also attract insects which then may become caught in the sap – once incapacitated the woodpeckers can easily gobble them up.
Size: 6-7 inches the smallest of the North American woodpeckers.
Identifying markings: Short beak, upper parts black and white with large white vertical stripe down middle of back, black and white striped face, underparts pure white. Males have a red nape patch.
Diet: Wood-boring insects, berries and seeds.
Habitat: Open woodlands, orchards and parks.
Location: Across the majority of the U.S. and Canada
Nesting: 3-7 eggs laid in cavity or even birdhouse.
Interesting Facts: These guys can be found throughout most of the country. They will readily visit bird feeders for seeds and suet. Whenever I have moved and put my feeders up, they are always one of the first species to show up. I’ve even caught them drinking hummingbird nectar out of my hummingbird feeder! They do drill into trees like other woodpeckers but primarily like to pick insects and larvae out of the crevices in bark.
Size: 8.5-10 inches
Identifying markings: Black wings with white spots, white stripe down the back, all white belly. Males have a red patch on their nape.
Diet: Wood-boring insects, berries, seeds.
Habitat: Mature forests, orchards, parks.
Location: Across the majority of the U.S. and Canada, some section of Mexico.
Nesting: 3-6 eggs on bed of wood chips in tree cavity.
Interesting Facts: Hairy’s look almost identical to the smaller Downy woodpecker. They can be distinguished by their larger overall size and also noticeably longer bill. It has been noted that sometimes they will follow the Pileated Woodpeckers, waiting for them to finish drilling a hole and once the Pileated leaves they will investigate and forage for insects the Pileated may have missed.
Size: 10-11 inches
Identifying markings: Dark glossy-green head and back, gray collar and breast, red face, pinkish belly. Wings are broad and rounded.
Diet: Insects picked from bark or caught in flight. Seldom chisels wood. Berries and nuts. Acorns make up 1/3 of diet, stores them in the cracks of trees.
Habitat: Open pine woodlands, groves and areas with scattered trees.
Location: Western U.S.
Nesting: 5-9 eggs, cavity in dead branch or stump.
Interesting Facts: Lewis’s woodpeckers have many unique characteristics, from their unusual coloring to their behavior. They have a graceful and steady flight pattern, not undulating as in other woodpeckers. Lewis’s will also sit on wires and other perches out in the open, which other woodpeckers do not do. They are social woodpeckers and can often be found in family groups. This unusual woodpecker was named after Meriweather Lewis, half of the famed explorers Lewis & Clark. His is the first written account of this bird, documenting it on their famous journey across the western United States in 1805. To find out more, visit this article on lewis-clark.org.
Size: 8-9.5 inches
Identifying markings: Black above with red cap and black mask through eyes, yellowish forehead and throat, pale eye. Glossy black all over with a white rump and streaked chest.
Diet: Insects, fruit, acorns.
Habitat: Oak woodlands, groves and forested canyons.
Location: West coast U.S., swaths all through Mexico into Central America.
Nesting: 4-6 eggs laid in a cavity, dead oak or other trees.
Interesting Facts: Acorn woodpeckers live in colonies from 3-10 birds. They work as a group to collect and store acorns, their winter food staple. Enough acorns are stashed away to feed the group for several months. They drill tiny holes in a tree trunk then stuff the acorn into the opening. This spirit of cooperation extends to nesting, where all members of the group will take turns incubating eggs and feeding the young. Scientists have found “granary trees” with up to 50,000 acorns!
Size: 8-9.5 inches
Identifying markings: Barred black and white back, brown face and neck, males have a red cap.
Diet: Insects, fruit, seeds, lizards.
Habitat: Deserts with large cacti, dry subtropical forests, woodlands.
Location: Southern Arizona into north eastern Mexico.
Nesting: 2-7 eggs cactus or tree cavity.
Interesting Facts: When Gila’s carve out a nest hole in saguaro cactus, they usually do not inhabit it for several months. This gives the inner pulp time to dry and creates solid, firm walls within the cavity. Gila Woodpecker populations declined by about 49% between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However their numbers are still high enough that they are not yet listed as a bird of concern. About 1/3 of the population lives in the U.S. and 2/3 in Mexico. Human development of the Sonoran Desert is reducing their habitat. Also, the non-native European starlings aggressively compete with them for nesting cavities.
Three Toed Woodpecker
Size: 8-9.5 inches
Identifying markings: Black back with the center of the back barred black and white, underparts white, flanks barred black and white. Black head with white eyebrow. Male has a yellow cap.
Diet: Wood-boring insects, spiders, berries.
Habitat: Coniferous forests.
Location: Across most of Canada and Alaska, along Rocky Mountain corridor.
Nesting: 3-7 eggs in tree cavity, uses wood chips or fibers for lining.
Interesting Facts: The three-toed woodpecker breeds farther north (upper Canada into Alaska) than any other woodpecker. Most woodpeckers have four twos – two pointing forwards and two backwards. However as its name suggests, this woodpecker only has three toes and they all point forwards. Instead of doing heavy drilling into trees to find their food, they prefer to flake off the bark with their bills. Typically stick exclusively to dead or dying trees.
Black Backed Woodpecker
Size: 9.5-10 inches
Identifying markings: Back, wings and tail all black. Underparts mainly white with flanks barred black and white. Black head with white whisker mark. Male has yellow cap.
Diet: Wood-boring insects spiders and berries.
Habitat: Coniferous forests.
Location: Across Canada into Alaska, some sections of north western U.S. and northern California.
Nesting: 2-6 cavity, rarely above 15 ft off the ground.
Interesting Facts: These woodpeckers have a lot of similarities with the three-toed. They too, have only three front facing toes. They also prefer to flake bark off of trees rather than drill. Black-back’s however, especially prefer burned-over sites. They move from spot to spot following outbreaks of wood-boring beetles in recently fire damaged habitats. They will travel far south of their normal range, into the United States, if there is either a decline in their preferred food source, or an overabundance which causes a population boom and the need to find territory.
Golden Fronted Woodpecker
Size: 8.5-10 inches
Identifying markings: Golden Fronted Woodpeckers are mainly identified by their gold marking above their beak and at the nape of their neck. Barred black and white back, face and underparts grayish tan. Males have a red cap.
Diet: Insects, fruit and acorns.
Habitat: Dry woodlands, groves and mesquite.
Location: Central and southern Texas into Eastern half of Mexico.
Nesting: 4-7 dead trunk limb or fence post, telephone pole.
Interesting Facts: Golden Fronted woodpeckers love using telephone poles and fence posts as nesting sites. Sometimes they drill into them so frequently serious damage is done. They chisel out a cavity 6-18 inches downwards (sometimes even deeper). During Texas summers, some of these woodpeckers end up staining their faces purple from eating a diet of prickly pear cactus fruit.
Ladder Backed Woodpecker
Size: 6.5-7.5 inches
Identifying markings: Black and white barring on the pack, patterned flanks, males have a red cap.
Diet: Wood-boring insects, caterpillars and cactus fruit.
Habitat: Arid, dry brushy areas and thickets. Desert.
Location: Very south eastern U.S. and across most of Mexico.
Nesting: 2-7 eggs in cavities of trees or cactus.
Interesting Facts: More common in Texas than any other U.S. state, these woodpeckers are found in dry, arid climates. Known for superior ability to locate wood-boring beetle larvae. In many areas they are found there is nary a tree in sight, only the giant Seguaro cactus, which is where they will make their home. Not surprisingly, they used to be called the “Cactus Woodpecker”. With their small size and agile movements, they easily navigate the thorns and spines of cactus and mesquite. Most closely related to the Nuttall’s woodpecker of California but their ranges barely overlap.
Size: 6 – 7.5 inches
Identifying markings: Identified by their black head, white throat and belly, black spots on their breast and black wings and rump, the adult female has a black forehead, crown and cap while the adult male has a red crown and black forehead. The only difference between them and the Ladder Backed woodpecker is that the Nuttall’s Woodpecker’s red crown extends more toward its neck than the Ladder Backed.
Habitat: West of the southern cascade mountains from southern Oregon to northern Baja California. In oak trees and along streams.
Location: Primarily western half of California.
Nesting: 3-6 eggs
Interesting Facts: Although the majority of Nuttall’s Woodpeckers prefer to spend their time in oak woodlands, but they do not eat acorns. Their diet is mainly insects such as beetles, beetle larvae, ants and millipedes or fruits such as blackberries. Their populations are currently stable in their small ranges. However, due to the limited areas of oak habitat they live in, there could be future concern if this habitat were to experience any significant change. The primary concern being Sudden oak death, a fungal disease that kills oak trees.
White headed Woodpecker
Size: 9-9.5 inches
Identifying markings: Body, wings and tail mainly black. unusual white face, crown and throat. White patch on the wing. Male has small red patch on nape.
Diet: Pine seeds and wood-boring insects.
Habitat: Mountain pine forests.
Location: Pockets of coniferous forests in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.
Nesting: 3-7 eggs in cavities, prefers snags, stumps and fallen logs.
Interesting Facts: An expert pinecone raider. The white headed woodpecker will cling to the sides or bottom of an unopened pine cone and avoid making contact with their body so they do not get sap on their feathers. They then chip open the scales and remove the seeds. Then, they take the seed and wedge it into the crevice of tree bark and hammer the seed to break it apart.