Types of Woodpeckers in North America: A Guide

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A Guide to North American Woodpecker Species

A Hairy Woodpecker
The Hairy Woodpecker. Image by Rockytopk9 via Flickr.

The music of nature is a beautiful thing made up of mainly bird songs and bird sounds. The beloved woodpecker plays the drum that sets the rhythm of this tune. It chips away at the bark of the tree to find insects for feeding, attract mates, and signify his ownership of a certain territory. 

You likely have seen woodpeckers at your local nature preserve, or your patio. Which types of woodpeckers have you spotted? Good question. There are many varieties of woodpeckers in North America, each with its own distinct look. Let’s discover which frequents your area. 

Types of Woodpeckers

There are twenty-three types of woodpeckers in North America, the majority of which are in the United States. A few categories of woodpeckers are migratory and move from North to South each year. 

Woodpeckers can be distinguished from other birds by their unique behavior, but also by their ‘sharply-pointed beaks, stiff tail feathers, and short legs equipped with four sharp-clawed toes’. The most common type of woodpecker in North America is the Northern Flicker, making this a great first to evaluate when trying to identify the type of woodpecker you have spotted. We will learn more about how to identify the Northern Flicker and other woodpecker types later in this article. 

A Northern Flicker
The Northern Flicker, the most common type of woodpecker in North America. Image by Jim Moodie via Flickr.

The other twenty-two types of woodpeckers in North America include:

  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker (also argued to be the most common type of woodpecker)
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Gila Woodpecker
  • American Three-toes Woodpecker
  • Black-backed Woodpecker
  • Goolden-fronted Woodpecker
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Nutall’s Woodpecker
  • White-headed Woodpecker
  • Arizona Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 
  • Red-breasted Sapsucker
  • Williamson’s Sapsucker 
  • Gilded Flicker
  • Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Categories of Woodpeckers

Hold on a minute! You included sapsuckers and flickers on that list. Aren’t we talking about woodpeckers? Sapsuckers and Flickers are actually types of woodpeckers. Sapsuckers look similar to a typical woodpecker; however, they are slightly smaller than the average woodpecker and have straighter beaks. The holes they drill are smaller and they feed on sap, making them more dangerous for the tree than their peers. 

Flickers, on the other hand, are larger than your typical woodpecker. They perch horizontally across tree branches compared to your average woodpecker, which climbs up and down the tree trunk. Flickers are brown and white-breasted. Flickers are more apt to drill the ground to find food, while woodpeckers peck away at tree bark. 

Why Are Woodpeckers Important in Nature?

A Red-bellied Woodpecker
The Red-bellied Woodpecker. Image by Eric Zhou via Flickr.

Woodpeckers are considered a keystone species. Keystone species are critical to an environment’s longevity and health. This is because other species heavily rely on the keystone species to survive. In the case of the woodpecker, the main factor rendering it a keystone species is the holes it leaves behind in the trees. These openings become homes to small mammals after the woodpecker has moved on. Woodpeckers also help balance the food chain as they act as both prey and predator, providing food to larger animals while regulating the insects they feed on. 

How To Identify Bird Species

There are several factors to consider when identifying types of woodpecker, or any bird for that matter. A guidebook is the most efficient way to do so as it typically lists each characteristic in detail along with included photos. 

The most common characteristics birders use to evaluate and identify birds include:

  • Size
  • Color
  • Beak shape
  • Tail feather features
  • Trees or brush typically inhabited
  • Height of flight
  • Nest shape and characteristics
  • Behavior
  • Voice or Song

Five Common Types of Woodpecker in North America

A Downy Woodpecker
The Downy Woodpecker. Image by Rob English via Flickr.

As we learned, many types of woodpeckers may be in your local forest or backyard. Let’s take an in-depth look at the five common types of woodpeckers you may spot in North America.

Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker is a large woodpecker, roughly 12.5 inches in height. It has a tan and grey body paired with a brown and gray head. They are found in woodland and open habitats throughout North America. The Northern Flicker is a noisy bird that frequently drills the ground for burrowing insects. 

Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is small, coming in at about 6.75 inches in height. The bird has black and white plumage, a short beak, and spotted wings. It is found throughout North America in young woodlands, except in arid regions such as the southwest. 

Pileated Woodpecker

This is a rather large type of woodpecker at 16.5 inches- about equal to a crow. What sets these birds apart from the rest is its bright red crest. Otherwise, look for a black and white face paired with a white throat. You may see a flash of white under its wing as it flies overhead. You are most likely to spot this bird in the Pacific Northwest where there are large expanses of forest with big dead trees. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a medium size for this bird family with a long black beak, brown head, red nape, and orange front. These birds are commonly found in the east in parks and woodlands. 

Hairy Woodpecker

The Hairy Woodpecker is a medium to large woodpecker of black and white feathers. It has a long black beak with white underparts, a large white patch on its back, and an all-black tail. It prefers to inhabit mature forests with big trees.

Woodpecker Facts

A Pileated Woodpecker
The Pileated Woodpecker. Image by Lynn Griffiths via Flickr.

Now that you can identify the woodpecker you’ve spotted let’s learn a little about them! Here are some interesting woodpecker facts:

  • Woodpeckers prefer dead trees as rotting wood is easier to drill, however they do visit live trees as well.
  • Woodpeckers have excellent hearing, particularly the Hairy Woodpecker. They listen for the tiny sounds insects make as they crawl through tree bark. 
  • Woodpeckers are solitary birds, except for the Acorn Woodpecker which has an advanced social order and lives in groups of 10-16 birds. 
  • Some woodpeckers will feed on your hummingbird feeders
  • There are over two-hundred species of woodpeckers in the world according to the International Ornithological Society.
  • All woodpeckers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, state law, and local city ordinances. It is illegal to be in hunt or be in possession of the birds, their eggs, and their feathers. 
  • While most woodpeckers are not endangered or at risk of extinction, many species have already been lost, and others are threatened by habitat loss. 

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