Let’s start with the big picture – there are 214 species of woodpeckers. There are none in Australasia and none in the Sahara or the very northern treeless tundra. They have found a way to live most everywhere else; savannah, boreal forests, montane forests, and so on. In much of the world they are a common yard bird – here in our yard we have the Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers as well as the Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted type) and the very occasional Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The first four are really quite common and seen daily for the most part.
Woodpeckers are almost always called “woodpeckers”. But there are close relatives in the group that go by these names; flicker, piculet, sapsucker, and wryneck. Piculets are tiny little tropical forest birds and wrynecks are birds that are smallish less rugged woodpeckers that feed mostly on ants and use other woodpeckers holes. But generally this whole group has the same skull and foot configuration – a configuration that allows for easily navigating vertical surfaces and opening wood to find insects and insect larvae.
There are also birds with similar adaptations that are not woodpeckers. The nuthatches and creepers may come to mind first but the new world and old world barbets, honeyguides, and even toucans have often been cited as near-woodpecker relatives.
These first two images are of the common black-and-white woodpeckers of the USA. This one is the smaller of the two; the Downy Woodpecker. They are easily attracted to residential yards with a suet-feeder. Merely having trees is enough to have them around but a suet feeder will guarantee that they are regular visitors. This one is chipping a hole in the siding of an outbuilding probably to gain access for a winter roosting spot. In many cases they will enter a building in this manner and then not find their way out. Many woodpeckers attract attention by drumming on metal gutters, the side of buildings, or dead branches and that is the only purpose of rapping. But in the fall many will look for winter accommodations and dig into barns, garages, and sheds.
This woodpecker is the very similar, though much larger, Hairy Woodpecker. It is widespread and common but not as common as the Downy. Both the Downy and Hairy are widespread in North American forests though the Hairy seems to have stronger ties to coniferous forests than does the Downy. There are six populations of the Downy and 14 populations of the Hairy in North America. These races are tied to elevations (temperature and moisture) and are determined by the extent of white in the pattern – in other words they are pretty similar across the continent.
Here is a pretty good look at the belly of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Don’t feel badly if you are not seeing the red, it isn’t a big feature. In the eastern USA this bird has expanded its range northward by hundreds of miles in the past three or four decades. They seem to know about global climate change.
The western forests of North America also have two similar woodpeckers; the Three-toed and the Black-backed. The Three-toed has a huge range that encompasses the boreal forests of Canada, Europe, and Russia. It is found wherever there are spruce trees. Like any creature that has such a widespread range there are localized populations. In the case of the Three-toed there are usually seven races listed.
As this image shows, the Black-backed Woodpeckers is similar to the Three-toed with the main difference being that the back is black; as advertised in the name. This is an adult male with the yellow patch on the head and the black and white cheek lines. Both of these birds are widespread and not rare, but they are quiet and exhibit a subdued behavior that makes them blend into the forest. They are not always easy to locate unless they are breeding and the males are calling and drumming or the youngsters in the nest have reached their “teens” and are constantly begging (noisily) for food.
There are four US sapsuckers (maybe five). Like all woodpeckers they will eat grubs and insects but sapsuckers derive a large percentage of their nutrition from the living parts of the forest. They lap up sap and cambium from holes they drill in certain trees. Hummingbirds will also visit the sapsucker wells.
The Acorn Woodpecker is a bit of a goofy looking bird. They are communal with as many as four males and females all staying together in a territory. The likely reason for this is that they collect and store thousands of acorns each year in “granaries”; holes drilled in telephone poles or dead trees serve as their bank account. It is probable that a large group, each with “skin in the game” can protect these valuable resources better than if they were in pairs or alone. In the western USA as long as there are oak trees there will be Acorn Woodpeckers.
The White-headed Woodpecker is a bird of the USA’s western pine forests. It will flake off bark and locate insects and such but will also spend time eating seeds from pine cones. They are found in Washington, Oregon, and California in the mountains with coniferous woodlands.
The Yellow-tufted Woodpecker is found in the Amazon Basin and down into the Pantanal. It is a striking bird and included here for the “gee whiz” factor. It is also a communal bird with up to five adults helping at a nest. They interact all day and often sleep in the same hole at night. They are quite widespread in central South America and seem to require little beyond a few trees, although tall dead trees seem to be a nesting requirement.
The Green-barred Woodpecker is another woodpecker of South America though not widespread into the Amazon Basin. Its range is extensive but not inland through the Pantanal below the Basin. A very versatile woodpecker it eats fruits, saps, bugs, and feeds on the ground like a flicker, eating ants. They are not communal and are usually seen one at a time. They have adapted to forests of all sorts and desert scrub lands as well. There are two populations and in both populations the male and female can be separated by the red in the mustache; males have it, females don’t.