Woodpeckers: Common to Rare
By Gary Zimmer, Certified Wildlife Biologist
In general, woodpeckers are present throughout the Upper Great Lakes Region for a number of reasons; most notably the vast forest resources present that address most of their daily needs. Below is one person’s (mine) ranking of the most common woodpeckers in this region to those that are considered rare and seldom seen. This ranking is based on personal observations, discussions with others with knowledge on these critters and a review of pertinent literature. Others may come up with a different ranking but unless we count each individual we really won’t know for sure who is correct!
Some woodpeckers are quite visible, frequently found where people and woodlots intersect. Some of our woodpeckers migrate with some found in this region only during the summer breeding season. Others stay in the same piece of land throughout their lives.
1) Downy Woodpecker - Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of our woodpeckers in our region, measuring about 6 inches from head to tail. While similar to the hairy woodpecker, with both having white backs and black wings with white spots, the short bill on the downy (only half the length of its head) tells it apart from the larger hairy. Males of both species have a patch of red feathers on the back of their heads, females do not have any red on their head. This species is found throughout the region and primarily stays in the same location year-round. With little effort you would expect to observe a downy woodpecker in nearly every woodlot in our region.
2) Hairy Woodpecker – Much like its cousin the downy in appearance the hairy woodpecker is about 9 inches in length. Its beak is as long as its head, a distinction quite visible to observers. Due to its larger size, the Hairy requires slightly larger trees for nesting but has been documented in nearly every woodland type in this region. Like the downy, the hairy does not migrate, staying in the same general location throughout the year. Researchers conducting the initial Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas project (1995-2000) confirmed breeding in 46% of the research quads for hairy woodpeckers, 62% for downy woodpeckers.
3) Northern Flicker - This very common woodpecker species measuring 13 inches long with a black-spotted breast, brown and black barred feathers on their backs and wings. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are yellow, the color can be seen easily in flight. Flickers have a patch of red feathers at the nape of the neck and a distinctive white rump patch. Flickers eat more ants than any other bird and can often be seen foraging on the ground, especially along roadsides. Because of this they are considered an edge species but do nest in trees. This species can be found in the southern parts of out region year-round though do migrate south during the winter months if weather becomes less favorable.
4) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – One of our smallest woodpeckers at about 8 inches long, the yellow-bellied sapsucker has alternating lines of black and white feathers on its face, a red patch of feathers on the forehead and yellow feathers on the central part of its belly. Male sapsuckers have a red chin while females have a white chin. Its breeding range corresponds closely with the distribution of coniferous forests in North America with the Upper Great Lakes Region being along the southern range of its breeding area. Despite this correlation this species is found using a wide range of forest habitats with highest numbers in the northern parts of of region during the breeding season. Sapsuckers make small lines of holes in trees, especially in the spring, that gather sap, trapping insects to forage on. In some cases these holes are significant enough to cause tree mortality. The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a summer resident in our region though a few individuals do overwinter in the far southern edge of each state.
5) Red-bellied Woodpecker – A mid-sized woodpecker, the red-bellied is about 9 inches long but has a tan rather than red belly with black and white barred feathers on the tail, back and wings. Males have red feathers extending from the nape of the neck across the top of the head and to the bill. Females have red feathering on the nape of the neck but gray to tan feathering across the top of the head. Mostly found in woodlots in the southern two thirds of Michigan and Wisconsin, this species is a year-round resident. The range of this species has been moving northward for several decades and numbers have been steadily increasing in our region.
6) Pileated Woodpecker - Pileated woodpeckers, the largest woodpecker in our region, reaching up to 20 inches in length with a wingspan of 26 – 30 inches. Nearly the size of a crow, they are rather skinny, weighing only 9 to 14 ounces. Pileated woodpeckers are easily recognized by their large size, bright red crest of feathers that points back off the top of their head and by their loud, cackling cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk call that resonates throughout the woods. They are mainly black in color with white underwings and a distinctive white line down the sides of the throat. Both sexes of pileated woodpeckers have the red crest on the top of their head but males also have a red stripe on their cheek. Pileated are non-migratory, occupying and protecting their territories from other woodpeckers year-round. Considered quite common, the population of pileated woodpecker increased by an average of 1.5% in the northeastern United States and nearby Canadian provinces from 1966 to 2015.
The six woodpecker species listed above are relatively common with populations remaining quite stable or even increasing over the last few decades in this region. In contrast, the next three are declining or rare in the region.
7) Red-headed Woodpecker - Red-headed woodpeckers are a medium sized woodpecker (7.5 to 10 inches long) with a splendid red head and glossy black upper parts contrasting with a white body and wing patches. This woodpecker primarily favors open upland sites with scattered trees (savanna-like habitat) and is found in scattered pockets across the southern two-thirds of Michigan and Wisconsin. Red-headed woodpeckers are one of the only woodpecker species that store food. They hide nuts, seeds or insects under bark or fence posts. In years with large acorn crops, this species may not migrate, remaining in or close to their summer breeding territories. Identified in both states as a Special Concern species, populations of red-headed woodpeckers have been declining steadily since the 1960’s. This decline has been attributed to decreases in suitable nesting cavities and competition for available cavities with European starlings.
8) Black-backed Woodpecker – Another medium sized woodpecker, the black-backed woodpecker is about 9.5 to 10.5 inches in length. Unlike the other woodpeckers found in this region it has a black back, wings and tail. It has a white face with a black crown extending down to the nape of the neck. A yellow patch of feathers on the forehead distinguishes males from females. This species is found primarily in the northern parts of the region and has been associated with disturbed coniferous forests (ie. post fire or beaver flooded meadows that have large numbers of conifer snags present). Attracted to these areas when wood-boring beetle larvae is present in the dead trees, this species is considered nomadic, moving its territories whenever favorable habitat and food supplies exist. Our region is on the southern edge of its range and the black-backed woodpecker has always been considered an uncommon species in this region. Both Michigan and Wisconsin list it as a Special Concern species but globally populations are stable.
9) American three-toed Woodpecker – The American three-toed woodpecker has been considered a rare winter migrant in this region with little evidence of the bird present during the breeding season. Close in size and coloration to a black-backed woodpecker, the American three-toed woodpecker has some white barring on portions of its back but still has a distinct black patch down the top of its back. Not considered a breeding species in our region, the American three-toed woodpecker is not listed on either state’s Endangered or Rare Species ranking.
Woodpeckers that overwinter in our region can provide great viewing opportunities for homeowners/bird watchers. A suet feeder or even a feeder containing sunflower hearts will often be utilized by woodpeckers.
Our native woodpeckers are considered primary excavators, their chisel-like beaks able to carve out cavities for nest sites. Often these nests sites are only used for one breeding season becoming available after that for other wildlife species to use for nesting or roosting. Wood ducks, chimney swifts, small owls, tree and flying squirrels, raccoon, marten, chickadees and even bats are some of the wildlife taking advantage of these ready made cavities.
Of all the woodpeckers listed, only the sapsucker targets healthy trees as they drill small holes to gather sap and attract insects. The others target dead or dying trees, often tapping trees with their beaks to locate soft spots where decay is underway and food sources are present.
Trees, especially dead or dying trees, are critical to our native woodpecker species providing feeding sites and potential nest sites. As long as we continue to manage forests that provide habitat components to address their needs, woodpecker populations in our region should remain viable well into the future.