Get to Know 7 Backyard Woodpeckers

Winter is a great time to explore birds as the white landscape and bare trees allow us to easily see movement and color. One bird I especially like to watch is the woodpecker. April Pulley-Sayre, a local nature author, recently came out with a delightful book for children focusing on woodpeckers we find in our area and their behaviors. With detailed and realistic cut paper woodpeckers, WoodpeckerWham! is a treat for children and adults. Here are a few woodpeckers we have in our area and how they act during winter. They typically stay in the same range during the winter, changing their eating habits to find nutritious and easily available foods.

· Downy—The smallest woodpecker in our area appears to have a downy appearance from the feathers. I watch for the size of the bill—if it was shorter than half the width of the head, then I know it’s a downy.


A Downy Woodpecker is smaller and typically has a shorter bill than the Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Beth Amos.


· Hairy—The hairy looks like a larger downy, only slightly larger. The bill is about the same width of the head. They have white fronts, patterned black and white backs, and a red patch on the crown of males.

· Yellow-bellied Sapsucker—These small birds are typically black and white, with red foreheads. Males have a red throat. These are boldly marked with distinct white and stripe on the wings. Watch for a row of small holes, allowing the sap to be eaten.

· Northern Flicker—These may forage on the ground for insects using an unusually curved bill. With black spots, crescents, and bars on a background of brown plumage, these large woodpeckers are pretty to see. You might see yellow as they fly.


Note the beige back and spotted belly of the Northern Flicker. Photo by Beth Amos. 

· Red-headed—With a full red head, rather than a patch, these majestic looking birds have a solid white belly and solid black back, with a patch of white on the back.


A Red-headed Woodpecker has a fully covered red head, as if it had been dipped in read, rather than the patch of red on the Red-bellied Woodpecker below. Photo by Beth Amos. 

· Red-bellied—A barred pattern on the back and red crown and nape makes this a distinct bird. A faint red or rosy patch on the belly gives it its name. Many confuse this with the Red-headed woodpecker due to the patch of red on top.


The Red-bellied Woodpecker has a faint red or rosy patch on its belly, hence the name. Photo by Beth Amos

· Pileated—The largest of the woodpeckers in our area, the bright red crest and black and white patterned face is distinct and easy to see as it flies in the woods. Their nest holes provide important shelter for other small animals.

As we started watching backyard birds, the woodpeckers were the ones we started figuring out first. They loved our suet cakes and would frequently come to our feeders when suet or peanut butter is out.

These are typical behaviors and adaptations we noticed:

· Drumming—Woodpeckers often use drumming to communicate territory boundaries or attract a mate, though it may also be used to drill a hole or get an insect out.

· Bills as tools—Woodpeckers use their bills to help pry food out of trees. They do not actually eat wood, but wood chips can be found near where they have been drilling.

· Altered diets—Woodpeckers change what they eat in the winter, mostly eating seeds and nuts. Some will even store these for later use. Providing suet, sunflower seeds, and peanut butter in backyard feeding areas will attract woodpeckers in winter.

· Stiff tail feathers—These feathers help provide balance and stability while drumming or drilling on trees.

· Sharp claws—Feet help the birds cling to bark. Their “zygodactyl” (two toes facing forward and two facing backward) feet allow them to be stable on trees while they look for food.

· Brain protection—Extra sinew near the bill and the brain help alleviate potential brain damage with all the drilling.

· Debris blockers—Woodpeckers have special feathers near their noses and translucent third eyelid to protect from flying sawdust.

Knowing our backyard birds helps us connect to nature and understand the world around us. If you’d like to learn more about woodpeckers, I am leading several opportunities at Woodlawn Nature Center in January.

January 22: Nature Play, 10am-noon, Woodpeckers Wham!–This open play time with extra activities centered on woodpeckers is geared toward children with an adult caregiver. Cost $3/child or free for members.

January 22: Woodpeckers in the Winter, 6:30 pm–This informative class will include a presentation and up close look at woodpeckers in our area. Cost: Free. Please reserve a spot by emailing by Monday, January 18.

January 23: Family Nature Club: Woodpeckers Wham!, 1-2:30 pm–After an interactive presentation geared toward children and their families, we take a hike in the woods to look for evidence of woodpeckers and habitat that is good for Woodpeckers. Open exploration time of the nature center and special hands-on activities centered on woodpeckers will be available. Cost $3/child or free for members.

Interested in a membership to Woodlawn Nature Center? Visit Woodlawn’s website for more information. Visit the Calendar of Events for upcoming programs or follow Woodlawn Nature Center on Facebook.

By Dr. Carla Gull from Inside Outside Michiana

All photos are by Beth Amos, a member of the Nature Nook Book Group. All rights reserved.

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