The Wonderful World of Winter Woodpeckers


The feeder frenzy of November is about to begin. Shortly after the crimson and gold colors of autumn disappear, and the first snowflakes swirl about beneath a panoramic sky of gray, an ever-changing menagerie of Eastern Bluebirds, Blue Jays, House Finches, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees will appear at feeders, almost as if by magic. Hang some suet and add extra sunflower seeds to the mix and the woodpeckers of winter may quickly join the feast. The one-ounce Downy Woodpecker, North America’s smallest woodpecker, and our red-crested forest giant, the Pileated Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker of North America, are among the mix of local species that frequent the feeders on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Even a novice winter woodpecker watcher can differentiate a Pileated Woodpecker from a Downy Woodpecker, but other species take some more effort. A disclaimer is in order here. When it comes to identifying many species of birds that frequent our feeders I will confess my ID skill set hovers just above novice. But yesterday I took action to change that. I just enrolled in a very cool online feeder bird identification course from the highly rated Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You, too, can read the description of the course and find enrollment information here.

Today’s Wilder Side blog post explores four species of woodpeckers that are year-round residents of Oakland County. They are the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the increasingly common Pileated Woodpecker that creates an “Oh Wow!” moment when it comes in to feed. Anyone who is just learning about the different species needs to be aware of the Red-headed Woodpecker. FACT: Just because a woodpecker has a red marking on its head (that perhaps should more accurately be described as a red cap or a red crown), it does not make it a Red-headed Woodpecker. Red-headed Woodpeckers are not very common in Oakland County. Most that were here last month have already migrated, unlike other species that stay here all winter.

Here’s how to tell it’s a Red-headed Woodpecker. The Red-headed Woodpecker is the only woodpecker species on the continent with an entirely red head and red neck. They are eye-catching. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them this way, “Adults have bright-red heads, white underparts, and black backs with large white patches in the wings, making the lower back appear all white when perched. Immatures have gray-brown heads, and the white wing patches show rows of black spots near the trailing edge.” My friend Janet Hug of the Oakland Audubon Society captured this image of a Red-headed Woodpecker and shared it with me.

Photo Credit: Janet Hug

If you want woodpeckers at your feeder, serve them their favorite feast: suet. When woodpeckers visit feeders for suet, or peck at trees for hibernating bugs, they almost always feed in a vertical position unlike most birds that perch. Sticky tongues and zygodactyly feet are the secret to their feeding success. Their sticky tongues are extremely useful after they peck away into a dead tree to locate and extricate carpenter ants and other bugs and grubs. As for their zygodactyly feet, words that make one think of dinosaurs, that means two toes are in the front and two toes are in the back on each foot. That formation enables woodpeckers to grip tightly onto tree bark. They also have very stiff tail feathers that are used to brace against the tree trunk as the toes cling to rough tree bark, or the sides of a suet feeder.

The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers create the most initial confusion when it comes to field identification. They both look very much the same and both species are active in Oakland County all winter and are frequent feeder visitors. Much of the difference in the species is in size, not behavior, but my own observations show that the Hairy Woodpeckers seem to spend more time on the trunks of the trees near the feeders, while the smaller Downy flits about the smaller branches. The Downy is smaller and has a smaller beak than the Hairy Woodpecker. But if a Hairy Woodpecker is not posing next to a Downy Woodpecker, how you can tell them apart? Beak size. The almost thorn-like beak of the energetic little Downy Woodpecker is shorter than the length of its head, while the beak of the larger Hairy Woodpecker is the same length as its head. The male Downy and the male Hairy Woodpeckers both have a red patch on the back of their head.

Literature suggests that Hairy Woodpeckers rarely visit bird feeders, but the Hairy Woodpeckers near me must be illiterate and don’t know what the bird books say. When a bird disagrees with a bird book, believe the bird. I will agree though, that of all the woodpeckers in our county, it is the Downy that most often appears at a feeder to peck at suet. I’ve also witnessed and photographed Downy Woodpeckers sipping nectar from my summer hummingbird feeder, a reminder that nature’s rules are flexible when it comes to food and habitat. That’s called adapting for survival.

Pileated Woodpeckers are described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology like this, “It is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. It’s nearly the size of a crow, black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest. Look (and listen) for Pileated Woodpeckers whacking at dead trees and fallen logs in search of their main prey, carpenter ants, leaving unique rectangular holes in the wood. The nest holes these birds make offer crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine marten.” If a Pileated comes to your feeder you will know it. I have one of these majestic beauties that frequents a dead tree at the edge of my woods. Perhaps this will be the winter I will capture an image at the feeder.

It’s never good to have favorites, but my favorite of our commonly seen winter woodpeckers is the Red-bellied Woodpecker, the species that is most often mistakenly called a Red-headed Woodpecker. The name Red-bellied Woodpecker can be confusing. Unless the bird is positioned in just the right way, and the light is good, the red-belly may be missed, for the human eye is focused on the more noticeable red forehead. A novice like me may have trouble telling the male Red-bellied Woodpecker from the female when the bird is on the move, but when perched on a feeder, or the side of a tree, it’s much easier to tell them apart. The females have a red nape and just a bit of ruby at the base of their bills. The males boast a full red forehead cap and nape. For those totally new to winter woodpecker watching, the nape is the back of the neck.

Winter is just about here. Now is the time to get the feeder up and stocked. The four favorite treats for woodpecker are suet, peanuts, black oil sunflower seeds and peanut butters. Contrary to urban legend and some Facebook posts, peanut butter will not choke a bird. I’ve even smeared some on a tree trunk near the feeder and watched the woodpeckers feast. Place your feeder in a place where you can view it from inside, hopefully with some nearby natural cover for the birds as well. If the location is somewhat sheltered from strong winds, and the hazards of roaming cats, all the better. Then it’s time to sit back and watch the wonderful world of woodpeckers of winter on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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7 thoughts on “The Wonderful World of Winter Woodpeckers

  1. A good read! Thanks for blogging about our new Feeder Bird ID and Behavior Course. You are correct in that Hairy Woodpeckers do indeed come to feeders. They spend a lot of time at the suet feeders. They often make appearances on the Cornell Lab Feeder Cam.

  2. Thanks so much for your note! I’ve had both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers flitting about today. We had our first dusting of snow last night and expect activity to kick in soon. I will also be logging into the Feeder Bird ID course soon as well.

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