Woodpeckers are a fun group of birds to watch. Their unique adaptation to be able to drill into trees at high speed without injuring themselves is quite unique! In this article we’ll take a look at 10 species of woodpeckers in Montana, and give a little information about where and when you might be able to spot them. At the end of the article we’ll also share a few tips on how to attract woodpeckers to your yard.
10 Woodpeckers in Montana
There are at least 17 species of woodpeckers that can be seen in North America. With 10 species that make their home here at least for part of the year, Montana is a great place to find woodpeckers!
The 10 species of woodpeckers in Montana are the American three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, Lewis’s woodpecker, Northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, red-naped sapsucker, Williamson’s sapsucker, and the red-headed woodpecker.
1. American Three-toed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides dorsalis
- Length: 8.3-9.1 in
- Weight: 1.6-2.4 oz
- Wingspan: 14.6-15.3 in
Aside from a few other states in the west, Montana is actually one of the few states that the American Three-toed Woodpecker can be found. They remain in the state year-round. Look for them in the wooded areas along the western edge of the state, such as Glacier National Park and the national forests around Missoula. They prefer damaged, old growth forests with lots of dead or even burned trees where they can extract insect larvae and mine for bugs easily.
The majority of woodpeckers have 4 toes, or Zygodactyl toes. However as the name suggests, these woodpeckers have just 3 toes. It is believed that the three-toed woodpecker is able to lean back further and strike a more powerful blow to its target because of the leverage having just 3 toes affords it.
Overall these woodpeckers are not common in the U.S. and are rarely seen at backyard feeders.
2. Black-backed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides arcticus
- Length: 9.1 in
- Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz
- Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in
Black-backed woodpeckers are most often found in burned forests between roughly 1 to 8 years old. The solid black plumage on their backs helps them blend into charred trees in forests where wildfires had occurred. Black-backed woodpeckers flock to these burned areas to feast on the larvae of wood-boring beetles and other insects, and will occupy these territories for years.
It is not known how these woodpeckers locate burned forests, but they will sometimes arrive just weeks after a fire. This species only has three toes, like the American three-toed woodpecker. They will also forage in un-burnt forests, following populations of bark beetles.
Find them any time of year in the forests of western Montana, especially where fires have occurred in recent years.
3. Downy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens
- Length: 5.5-6.7 in
- Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz
- Wingspan: 9.8-11.8 in
You can find these tiny woodpeckers everywhere throughout Montana all year. They are very common throughout almost all of the U.S. and are the smallest species of woodpeckers in North America. The downy is only about the size of a sparrow, and can be identified by the white spots on their backs, and pure white chest and belly. Males have a red patch at the back of their head.
The downy is the woodpecker species most likely to visit backyard bird feeders. They love suet but also eat a variety of seeds like sunflower seeds, millet, and peanuts. You may even see them visiting your hummingbird feeder, where their small beak allows them access to the sugar water.
4. Hairy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryobates villosus
- Length: 7.1-10.2 in
- Weight: 1.4-3.4 oz
- Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in
You may be wondering if you’re looking at another downy woodpecker in this picture. The answer is no, but they sure do look alike. Hairy woodpeckers often occur in the same areas as downy’s across the U.S. and cause plenty of confusion when you’re trying to identify which is which.
The hairy woodpecker is significantly larger, and has a longer beak relative to its body size than the downy. We have an article here that can help you learn how to tell them apart.
These two woodpeckers are very similar in all ways from habitat to diet. They can be found throughout Montana all year. The hairy woodpecker tends to be a little more shy of humans, and while they will visit backyard suet feeders, they aren’t as commonly seen as the downy.
5. Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes lewis
- Length: 10.2-11.0 in
- Weight: 3.1-4.9 oz
- Wingspan: 19.3-20.5 in
Lewis’s woodpeckers come to Montana during the spring and summer for the breeding season. They tend to stay in pine forests and forests that have been burned, but their populations are often unpredictable.
After breeding season they travel around looking for stores of acorns and nuts, so their fall-winter population often ends up in different locations year-to-year. They take these foods and store them in crevices to last them throughout the winter.
Unlike a lot of other woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers catch insects in midair. They have broad, rounded wings that gives their flight a graceful, crow-like quality.
Their coloration is also unique considering most woodpeckers have black and white bodies. Lewis’s are quite colorful, with a pink belly, red patch on the face, and a dark, iridescent green on their back and wings.
6. Northern Flicker
- Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
- Length: 11.0-12.2 in
- Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in
These medium to large sized woodpeckers are quite common in backyards throughout the United States. In my opinion they are also among some of the most colorful birds in North America. Flickers feed mainly on insects and unlike other woodpeckers, often like to find them on the ground rather than trees.
Identify them by the black spots on their bellies, solid black bib, barred black and gray wings, and light brown and gray head. Males will have a “mustache” while females do not.
There are two color varieties in the U.S., the “yellow-shafted” and the “red-shafted” and Montana has both! The main difference is the color underneath the wings and tail, and the color of the mustache on the males. You may even seen something that looks like a combination of both, as they sometimes interbreed and form a hybrid.
Northern flickers are common throughout Montana all year, and will visit backyard feeders if suet is offered. Another good way to attract them is to have some leaf piles in the yard, you may see them digging around for bugs.
7. Pileated Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus
- Length: 15.8-19.3 in
- Weight: 8.8-12.3 oz
- Wingspan: 26.0-29.5 in
The pileated woodpecker is the largest of all woodpeckers in Montana, as well as North America. They have a black body, black and white striped face and large red crest. Males have a red cheek stripe while females do not. Pileated woodpeckers are typically only see along the western boarder and in the northwest corner, but remain there year-round.
If you want to spot a pileated woodpecker, look in mature forests. They love old, dead trees that have rotting wood. Pileated woodpeckers will sometimes come to backyard feeders, although they are much less common visitors than other species and often are too large for all but the biggest suet feeder.
8. Red-naped Sapsucker
- Scientific name: Sphyrapicus nuchalis
- Length: 7.5-8.3 in
- Weight: 1.1-2.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.1-16.9 in
Red-naped sapsuckers are very closely related to yellow-bellied sapsuckers and were even thought to be the same species until 1983, when researchers discovered they were in fact two different species. Both males and females have a red forehead, while males have a fully red throat and females have a white throat with red “necklace”.
Like other sapsuckers, they drink sap from trees like aspen, birch, or pine, but also feed on insects. Neat rows of holes in a sap-producing tree is a good indicator that a sapsucker is in the area.
Look for them in Montana early in the breeding season (mid-May), and early in the morning when they are most active. They remain in Montana for the summer, then head south out of the state in the fall. They are most common in the central and western portions of the state.
9. Williamson’s Sapsucker
- Scientific name: Sphyrapicus thyroideus
- Length: 8.3-9.8 in
- Weight: 1.6-1.9 oz
- Wingspan: 17 inches
Williamson’s sapsuckers are only found in a handful of midwestern states, Montana being one of them. They are mainly found in the far western part of the state. These sapsuckers only visit Montana during the breeding season, then head further south for the winter.
They feed primarily on the sap of coniferous trees, extracting it by drilling sap-wells. Males and females look very different. Males have black backs with bright yellow bellies and a touch of red on the chin. Females have brown heads with black and white striped bodies.
Uncommon in backyards, Williamson’s sapsuckers are primarily found in mountainous forests. They roost in natural or excavated cavities and prefer nesting in a larger, older trees.
10. Red-headed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
- Length: 7.5-9.1 in
- Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5 in
Montana is along the far western edge of the red-headed woodpeckers range. They tend to only be seen in the eastern half of the state, during the spring and summer breeding season.
The red-headed woodpecker is easily identified by its completely red/crimson head, and black and white color-blocked body. They will sometimes come to suet feeders, but are less common backyard visitors than some other types of woodpeckers. Aside from suet they will also eat various nuts and fruits.
They are one of only four species of woodpeckers that actively store their food in caches for later use, their favorite being acorns and beech nuts. These woodpeckers takes it a step further though, and will cover the food up with bark or wood to better camouflage their stash.
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.