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Background Information on Woodpeckers


Purpose of this article is to get a good understanding of woodpeckers that are known for tapping on tree trunks in order to find insects living in crevices in the bark and to excavate nest cavities. There are over 180 species of woodpeckers, all in the family Picidae.

Please remember that North American woodpeckers are protected species. That means you cannot harm them in anyway (like poisoning, shooting, etc.)


Living things come in various shapes, sizes and forms so in science, we have a naming convention originally conceived over 250 years ago by Carl Linnaeus. Linnaean taxonomy, or system of classification, is where organisms are grouped based on what species they are most closely related to (i.e. genes, features, etc.).

Linnaean Hierarchy as published in the 10th Edition of Systema Naturae (1758) has since been updated incorporate categories above and below these original categories.


Woodpeckers are part of Picidae family which includes flickers, sapsuckers, wrynecks and piculets which are found worldwide except for New Zealand, New Guinea, Australia, Madagascar and the extreme Poland regions. At last count, there are over 200 different species of woodpeckers in the world of which 21 species inhabit the USA.

The Most Common Types Of North American Woodpeckers

Although there are 200+ Woodpecker species, these 7 woodpecker species are the most common in North America.

Red Headed Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-a-red-headed-woodpecker-flPopularized by the classic cartoon, “Woody Woodpecker”, these woodpeckers range in size from 7-9 inches and are identified by their white chest, red head, bluish gray bill and white markings in their wings.

In the summer, Red Headed Woodpeckers are found east of the Rocky Mountains and west of New England. In the winter they are found mainly in southwest Texas.

Red Headed Woodpeckers eat beech and oak bark, seeds, nuts, berries, fruit, insects, bird eggs and mice.

They produce 5-7 eggs in nests found in dead trees or dead branches. These birds breed in woodlands, river bottoms, orchards, and swamps and are attracted to burnt or recent clearings. (Back to Top)

Pileated Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-b-pileated-woodpecker-flPileated Woodpecker is the largest variety of woodpecker, ranging from 16-19 inches long. Both male and female have a red Mohawk (crest) on the top of their heads, but the male is distinguished by a red cheek pad. Pileated woodpecker can also be identified by their black body, black and white stripes on the facial area, a white strip from their bill to the their neck and beady yellow eyes.

Pileated woodpeckers make their habitat in coniferous forests with large trees found in southern Canada, the Midwestern and eastern parts of the United States, the pacific coast and the northern Rockies.

They eat carpenter ants, wood boring beetle larvae, fruit and nuts.

Pileated woodpeckers produce 4-6 eggs in nests found in dead tree with a cavity lined with wood chips. Male and female Pileated woodpeckers stay together as a pair in their territory all year long. (Back to Top)

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-c-red-bellied-woodpecker-flThe Red-Bellied Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker found in the southeast. These 9-inch long woodpeckers are identified by red marks on their head that makes it look like they are wearing a hood. Their feathers are black and white striped and they have a black bill and a gray face. These woodpeckers have a longer bill and longer wider tongue tip in order to dig deeper in wood for food.

Red Bellied Woodpeckers will lay 2-6 eggs in dry or damp forests and are found in suburban areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and southward to the Gulf Coast and Eastern Texas.

They eat seeds, fruits, sap, lizards, tree frogs, small fish, birds and eggs.

The Red Bellied Woodpecker competes for nesting holes and even drags out Red Cocked Woodpeckers from their nests and kills them. (Back to Top)

Red Cockaded (Cocked) Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-d-red-cockaded-woodpecker-flRed Cockaded Woodpecker is generally 7 ½ inches long and can be identified by its black and white striped back, white face and chest and black spotted sides and belly. The male adult has a red streak behind its eye that is visible only when the bird is agitated.

Currently there are only four Red Cockaded Woodpecker populations that exist in the world and all are located in the Southeastern United States: Apalachicola National Forest in Northwest Florida, The Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina, the Kisatchie National forest in Louisiana, and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

During the summers the Red Cocked Woodpecker feeds on worms found in corn, on nuts and berries. This woodpecker circles the pine tree as it climbs, eating any insects and insect eggs they find underneath the bark.

Nests with 2-5 eggs are laid in pine tree cavities that are lined with dried wood chips usually found 12-70 feet off the ground.

The Red Cocked Woodpecker is non-migratory and usually stays with a large group that contains one breeding pair and a number of adult males. (Back to Top)

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-f-downy-woodpecker-flDowny and Hairy Woodpeckers are similar in their habitats, eating habits and reproduction.

Both are black and white woodpeckers, but the downy woodpeckers can be identified by it short dainty beak, black wings with white stripes, and the red patch on the back of the head of adult males.

Hairy woodpeckers are about the size of a robin 9 to 13 inches with a long beak and a comma shaped black mark form shoulder to breast. Male adults also have a red patch on the back of their head.

Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are the only woodpeckers with vertical white stripes on its back.

Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are found from Canada throughout the United States to Mexico.

Both woodpeckers eat sunflower seeds, nuts, fruit, and insects such as ants, grasshoppers, wood boring beetles, spiders, crickets and flies, though Hairy Woodpeckers prefer caterpillars and moths.

Four to Five eggs are produced in bare hole cavities in trees. (Back to Top)

Northern Flicker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-e-eastern-flicker-woodpecker-flThe Northern Flicker has bright yellow markings under its wings and tail feathers, a tan throat and face, and red crescent markings at the nape of its neck. Male adults are distinguished by the black mustache markings on its face.

Northern Flicker Woodpeckers are attracted to open woodlands preferring swamps, recently flooded areas, beaver ponds and cities and suburbs all across America.

Northern Flicker Woodpeckers eat grasshoppers, crickets, termites, wasps, beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, spiders, ants, fruit seeds including cherries, dogwood berries, Virginia creepers, poison ivy, sumac, hackberry and black gum, sunflower seeds and nuts.

During the winter months, they intake fruit more than anything else. Northern Flicker Woodpeckers lay 3-12 eggs in unlined cavities in dead trees. (Back to Top)

Acorn Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-g-acorn-woodpecker-flAcorn Woodpeckers get their name by the large numbers of acorns that they hoard during the summer and winter months. About 9 inches long, Acorn woodpeckers can be identified by white feathers on its breast, yellow nose, black marks around the beak, eye and back of neck and the red spot on the top of its head.

Acorn Woodpeckers are attracted to oak woods, pine-oak woodlands, and parks where they drill holes in trees to store acorns. They live year-round in oak and pine-oak woodlands of western Oregon, California, and the Southwest through Mexico and Central America.

During the summer months they eat insects, fruit, sap, and corn that they horn in utility poles and wooden structures.

Acorn Woodpeckers usually stay within their colony of about 2-15 birds. (Back to Top) /a>

Black Backed Three Toed Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-h-black-backed-woodpecker-flThe Black Backed Three Toed Woodpecker has a solid black back, black and white striped breast, black head, yellow crown, white stripe behind eye, white throat and belly and black tail.

The Black Backed Three Toed Woodpeckers can be found from North America to Northern Alaska, Canada, and Northern Saskatchewan to north Central Newfoundland. They prefers burnt woodlands and mixed forests.

The Black Backed Three Toed Woodpeckers eat on larvae of tree dwelling insects, spiders and berries.

Three to six eggs are produced in the nest of bark chips in trees about five to seven feet above ground. (Back to Top) /a>

Gila Woodpeckers

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-i-gila-woodpecker-flGila Woodpeckers, pronounced (hee-la), are around 8 inches tall and are identified by their tan head, throat, breast, belly, black and white stripes on their back feathers, black wings with white spots and white under their tail. Adult males have a red cap on top of their head.

Common year round in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, the Gila Woodpecker prefers deserts with lots of cacti and mesquite trees.

They eat insects, fruit, nuts, lizards and eggs of smaller birds.

Gila woodpeckers often tap loudly in metal objects as a territorial call. They have been known to tap on objects as much a 10 times a minute. Because of so much hammering, their brains are protected between their bill and their skull by a spongy elastic material. (Back to Top)

Golden Fronted Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-partji-golden-fronted-woodpecker-flGolden Fronted Woodpeckers are mainly identified by their gold marking above their beak. Standing 7 inches tall, the adult male has a red cap on its head while the adult female has a black cap. Both have long tongues that help them to gather insects under the tree bark.

Found in Texas and Oklahoma, the Golden Fronted Woodpecker makes its home in deserts, cottonwood groves and bushy areas along streams, wooded canyons and parks.

They find food by scavenging insects and insect larvae on the surface of trees and on the ground instead of drilling holes like other woodpeckers. They eat fruit, cactus, insects, acorns, pecans and corn. (Back to Top)

Ladder Backed Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-k-ladder-backed-woodpecker-flStanding around 7 inches tall, the Ladder Backed Woodpecker is a small black and white woodpecker with a mostly white head. It has black spots on its breast, a white throat, breast and belly, black wings with white spots and black tail feathers. Adult males have a red crown and hind neck and black forehead while the adult female has a black forehead, crown and cap.

Ladder Backed Woodpeckers are more common in Texas than in any other state in the US. They make their habitat in wooded canyons, cottonwood groves, pine oak woodlands and desert grasslands.

Feasting on wood boring beetle larvae, caterpillars, ants and the fruit of cacti, the Ladder Backed Woodpecker moves up and down trees by walking, hopping and climbing.

Adult Ladder Backed Woodpeckers breed from January to March and produce 4-6 eggs from April to May. They nest in Joshua trees, willow trees, walnut trees, oak trees, pine trees and mesquite trees. Male and female Ladder Backed Woodpeckers roost in separate cavities. (Back to Top)

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-l-nuttalls-woodpecker-flThe Nuttall’s Woodpecker is very similar in appearance to the Ladder Backed woodpecker. Identified by their black head, white throat and belly, black spots on their breast and black wings and rump, the adult female has a black forehead, crown and cap while the adult male has a red crown and black forehead.

The only difference between them and the Ladder Backed woodpecker is that the Nuttall’s Woodpecker’s red crown extends more toward its neck than the Ladder Backed.

Located west of the southern Cascade Mountains from south Oregon to Northern Baja California, the Nuttall’s Woodpecker is found in oak trees and along streams.

They nest in willows, cottonwood, sycamore and oak trees usually producing 3-6 eggs between March and June. The male Nuttall’s Woodpecker shares sitting responsibilities with the female and usually stays around the nest at night. Once born, the young leave the nest after four weeks.

The Nuttall’s Woodpecker loves acorns and insects, usually feasting on beetles, caterpillars, ants and bugs. Male adults usually scour tree trunks and large branches while the female sticks to the smaller branches. Digging holes and moving diagonally up and down a tree, the Nuttall’s Woodpecker will hang upside down under limbs looking for insects under the bark. (Back to Top)

Lewis’s Woodpecker

allthumbsdiy-woodpecker-part-m-lewis-woodpecker-flLewis’s Woodpeckers are different from any other species of woodpecker because of their solid wing color and distinct crow like flaps when flying.

They stand 9 inches tall and are identified by their dark bronze-green head, back, upper wings, rump and upper tail. They have a gray collar and upper breast, red face and pink belly.

Common in southern British Columbia south to central California, northern Arizona and northern New Mexico, Lewis’s Woodpeckers reside in pine oak woodlands, oak groves and grasslands.

Acorns make up 1/3 of this woodpecker’s diet. The Lewis’s Woodpecker stores acorns in the cracks of trees to save for later while eating ants, crickets, grasshoppers, juniper berries, while berries, pine nuts, cherries apricots, sunflower seeds, nuts, sugar water and fruit.

They nest and produce 6-8 eggs in the cavity of dead stump or tree limbs. (Back to Top)

Final Words

Now that I have a good understanding of different types of woodpeckers, I am going try to find out why they peck on houses (click here).

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Reference Links


Saturday 23rd of December 2017

Thanks so much for helping me identfy the several Lewis' woodpeckers in my oaks. The jays were pestering them, making me wonder if the jays consider them competitors, then I realized the jays were probably stealing and/or memorizing the woodpeckers' stashes.


Monday 25th of December 2017

HI Cheyenne-

Thank you for your comment. I hope you are having better luck than I am.. My woodpeckers do not like the all-cedar luxury condo I built for them. Instead, they like to peck on my cedar siding!!

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!



Monday 24th of October 2016

There are many more than four populations of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I can think of four populations just in north Florida alone: Ocala National Forest, Osceola NF, Apalachicola NF, and Goethe State Forest. There are many other populations throughout the southeast. Go to and enter "Red-cockaded Woodpecker" in the search box.


Tuesday 25th of October 2016


Wow, thanks for the info & website!