Woodpeckers are readily identifiable by their strong claws, short legs, and stiff tails which enable them to climb tree trunks. Their sharp bills are used to chisel out insect food and nest holes and to drum a territorial signal. In fact, we usually hear the rat-a-tat-tat mini-jackhammer of a woodpecker before we see one.
This look and sound often make the woodpecker a “spark bird” - or a bird that begins a person’s interest in birding. We can also find them year round, thanks to their drill bit bill providing access to wood-boring insect larvae or hibernating carpenter ants.
Woodpeckers also do something that few other birds can do: make themselves a shelter specifically for overnighting. An overnighting winter shelter hole can be excavated in as little as a day and is usually around six feet off the ground. The same woodpecker may attend its same roost hole nightly and may use it all winter long, or it might attract a different woodpecker (kind of like a “tree B&B”).
Here are the woodpeckers to watch for this winter in our neck of the woods.
With a range across most of North America, downy woodpeckers are common in our parklands, suburbs, and forests, and are frequent visitors to bird feeders. The downy woodpecker has a small head and bill, as well as a white back with pale, brown-grey bars or spots. The male has the readily-spotted red spot on the head, while the female does not. According to the National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the downy’s “pik and whinny are softer and higher-pitched than the hairy woodpecker.” In winter, downy woodpeckers frequently flock with other species in order to spend less time watching for predators.
Hairy woodpeckers have the same range as the downy woodpecker, and both are white-chested, but the hairy is larger than the downy, with a longer, chisel-like bill. They are fairly common and found in both open and dense forests. A hairy’s call is described as a “loud, sharp peek and a slurred whinny.”
Birds of a Feather…
Hairy and downy woodpeckers occur together throughout most of their ranges. The downy uses smaller branches, while the larger hairy tends to spend time on tree trunks. Hairy woodpeckers sometimes follow pileated woodpeckers - after the pileated has moved on, the hairy will forage in the same holes for any insects that might have been missed.
The pileated is the largest woodpecker generally seen in North America. A perched bird is almost entirely black on the back and wings, with a white chin and dark bill. In flight, it has deep, slow, crow-like wing beats. Both the male and female have that easily spotted red cap, although the male’s is more extensive. The call is a “loud wuck note or series of notes, given all year, often in flight.” They prefer dense mature forests, but will appear in parklands, woodlands, and your backyard. Long, rectangular or oval holes in trees and stumps mean a pileated woodpecker has been feeding on carpenter ants - their major food source. The nest holes these birds make actually offer shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens. You may want to leave dead or dying trees on your property to attract pileated woodpeckers (as well as other woodpeckers, nuthatches, etc.) to forage, roost or even nest.
If you’re very fortunate, you might spot the magnificent, red-headed woodpecker - which is definitely a “spark bird.” It has a snow-white body and half-black wings (often nicknamed “The flying checkerboard”) topped with an entirely crimson head. The species has declined heavily in the last half century due to habitat loss and a changing food supply. The red-headed woodpecker is the only one of these four known to store food - especially useful in winter months.
Reasons to Peck
When you next hear a woodpecker "drumming" away, it may be uncovering food, making a shelter (for itself or another species), or merely communicating. The drummer might be staking territory, seeking a mate, or simply making a statement. If only we could tell if they were drumming, “It’s mighty cold today!” Or perhaps, “Please put a bell on your house cat.”
To learn more about woodpeckers and birds you might encounter on your next winter walk, visit allaboutbirds.org