With the exception of Australia and the Polar regions birds of the Order Piciformes nest in trees world wide. The United States is no exception. The types of woodpeckers common in back yards across the country usually fit into twenty five Picidae species, including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in eight genera. Temporarily placing the Ivory-billed woodpecker along with a couple of rare visitors into brackets, the North American breeding woodpecker population consists of approximately twenty-two species in five genera.
North America’s largest woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), lives year round in most of the continent’s temperate forests. The red crest of feathers on a large black body makes it very easy to identify.
With a few exceptions, most North American woodpecker populations remain relatively healthy, although one can never understate the importance of a healthy forest ecosystem with a healthy forest bird population. Perhaps the least healthy woodpecker population title belongs to the Southeast’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker, classified as endangered since 1970. A variety of public and private organizations now actively manage their populations, with a goal of increasing and/or stabilizing them.
Sapsuckers stand out as unusual types of woodpeckers because of the fact that they drill their wells in trees from coast to coast. Four species live in the wild as well as finding their way to yards around the United States.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), pictured above, the West Coast variant, spend their summers in higher elevation forests near rivers and streams. Some populations migrate down to the valleys during winters.
The Red-naped Sapsucker picks up its range where the Red-breasted Sapsucker range ends, the forest areas of the Rocky Mountain region.
In some instances, excessive sapsucker drilling activity on any one tree to any group of trees might pose tree health problems. In those instances, some experts recommend wrapping burlap around the tree trunks.
Flicker Woodpeckers (Colaptes)
Although instances of hybridization among North American flicker species continues to be a subject of discussion, technically, two North American Colaptes species plod the soil in search of food on a daily basis.
The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) divides into western and eastern subspecies, with the West Coast variant named the Red-shafted Northern Flicker and the East Coast variant named the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.
Flickers prefer open habitats such as fields, rather than dense forests. Their diet consists of insects, seeds and berries.
The male is distinguished from the female by the red patch on the cheek.
Popular birds, they are welcome at many back yard feeders and especially enjoy a snack of suet and water. With a life span that often exceeds the five year mark, homeowners might expect a long term relationship with any flickers they might attract to the back yard feeder.
Perhaps Northern Flickers reach the pinnacle of their popularity in Alabama where they are called Yellowhammers and celebrated as the official state bird.
Technically, North America’s second flicker species, the Gilded Flicker (Colaptes auratus), inhabits Southwest scrub lands.
Males sport a red mustache. Like the Yellow-shafted Flicker, it has yellow under bars..
North America’s most diverse woodpecker genera, Picoides, records nine separate species.
The smallest and most common Picoides, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) adapts equally well to most wilderness and residential areas with trees.
Physically, the Downy’s black and white feather pattern resembles the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker, (Picoides villosus). In instances where size comparisons might not be available, experts suggest examining the bill size in relation to the head size. Downy Woodpeckers typically have small bills.
As with most woodpecker species, males grow a red-feathered patch on their crown.
Less wide ranging, the Ladder-backed woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) makes its home in a variety of Southwest habitats, from cacti to forest areas.
A pattern of striped feathers on the back and spots on the breast provide initial identification marks. Males, like the one in picture two also have a red cap.
Ladder-backed Woodpeckers look very similar to Nuttall’s Woodpecker, another Picoides species. However, Nuttall’s are limited to the coastal areas of California.
In that small area where the species overlap, the two species are known to inter-breed.
Six Melanerpes species of woodpeckers nest among North America’s wooded areas.
The Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), perhaps the best known Melanerpes, inhabits western oak groves, where it spends its days gathering acorns.
Once gathered, the acorns get stored in tree holes or nearby wooden structure such as fences and telephone poles.
Unlike most woodpecker species, both the male and female have a red crown.
Gila Woodpeckers (Melanerpes uropygialis) nest in tree and cactus cavities across the lower elevations of the desert Southwest.
Their adaptability extends to their dietary habits, with a variety of fruits, grains and insects pleasing to their palates. Being relatively social birds, they are happy to visit back yard feeders.
Physically, Gila Woodpeckers head feathers show a brown or light color to match the black and white barred back. Males show red-feathered caps.
Social birds, Gila Woodpeckers need no second invitation to visit a back yard feeder.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), a native eastern species, makes its home in many forest areas as well as wooded residential areas.
They belong to the same genus as the Acorn Woodpecker, and like them, they are known to store food in cracks in trees. Their diet also consists of in season fruit, nuts and insects.
Their propensity for vocalization makes it easy to find them in their territory. The dark checkered back and gray face and belly are good field identification clues.