20 Captivating Types of Woodpeckers

Woodpecker with a red head perched on a tree

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More than 200 woodpecker species have been identified in the natural world, and 23 of them live in the United States. Because they are classified as migratory, nongame birds, they are protected under federal and state law, yet some have become endangered and almost completely lost due to habitat destruction.

While all woodpeckers share relatively similar qualities, the different species boast a range of colors, personalities, and peculiarities that make them utterly unique.

Here are 20 types of woodpeckers that have caught the eyes and ears of bird lovers around the world.

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Woodpecker with white belly and red-orange head resting on branch

Larry Keller, Lititz Pa. / Getty Images

You’d think the red-bellied woodpecker would have a striking red belly, but it doesn’t. Red-capped would have been a more apt name for this omnivore, since its brightly colored crown is more eye-catching to bird watchers than the little red on its belly.

The red-bellied woodpecker feeds on insects, berries, and nuts. It has even been known to catch flying bugs midair. This species is most common in the north and northeast regions of the U.S.

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Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

Woodpecker with acorn in its mouth filling a granary tree

Alexandra Rudge / Getty Images

The acorn woodpecker drills most often into oak trees. It hoards acorns in the holes it pecks into dead trees—known as "granary trees"—and feeds on them through the winter. It rarely ever feeds on wood-boring insects.

Acorn woodpeckers nest in groups of up to a dozen or more and seldom stray from oak woods.

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Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Red-headed woodpecker with beak partly open on dead tree

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The red-headed woodpecker is completely covered in a rich scarlet hue from its neck up, making it very recognizable and alluring. It is no wonder why the red-headed woodpecker was a favorite of the famed ornithologist John James Audubon.

This woodpecker favors groves, farms, forest edges, and orchards. It used to be very common in eastern North America, though its numbers have been decreasing for many years. To match its striking look, the red-headed woodpecker has an unmistakable sharp chirp.

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Golden-Fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons)

A golden-fronted woodpecker hanging upside-down off a tree.

Arthur Morris / Getty Images

The golden-fronted woodpecker certainly has a unique appearance, with its zebra-patterned body and speckles of yellow and red on its head. Its unmistakable look made it easy for Texans to target the species during the early 20th century, when it was considered a pest for boring into telegraph poles.

It is most commonly found in the open land of eastern Mexico, northern Central America, and sometimes Texas. The golden-fronted and red-bellied woodpeckers have been known to butt heads and aggressively defend their territories in areas where their habitats overlap.

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White-Headed Woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus)

White-headed woodpecker on a rock, gazing up

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White-headed woodpeckers have small red spots on the crowns of their white heads, paired with mostly black bodies. They prefer mountain pine forests in the western U.S. and feed more on pine seeds than any other North American woodpecker. This species has been known to stay relatively quiet and undetected.

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American Three-Toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)

American three-toed woodpecker on a tree

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While woodpeckers usually have four toes, this one stands out for having just three. This aptly named American three-toed woodpecker often nests in conifer trees like pine and spruce, feeding primarily on spruce bark beetles.

The three-toed woodpecker is especially vulnerable to the climate crisis. Audubon scientists estimate that a global increase of just 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit will lead to significant habitat loss for this bird.

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Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)

A hairy woodpecker perched on a tree stump

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A close lookalike of the downy woodpecker, the hairy woodpecker is small with a long black beak and black and white feathering. It resides in dead forest trees and feeds off insects and sometimes leaking sap. The hairy woodpecker keeps a straight-backed posture and can be found nesting at sea level or high up in the mountains.

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Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

A downy woodpecker perched on a branch

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The downy woodpecker is the smallest of all North American woodpeckers. It is also probably the most familiar to people because it doesn't shy away from towns, city parks, backyards, or vacant lots.

The downy is small, reaching lengths of about 5.5 to 6.7 inches. Males are distinguished by a small red patch on their heads. They are attracted to open woodlands and are most noisy in the spring and summer.

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Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

Ivory-billed woodpecker with red crest perched on tree

Original photo by Arthur A. Allen / watercolored by Jerry A. Payne, USDA-ARS / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 us

The ivory-billed woodpecker is the third-largest species in the world and the largest living north of Mexico. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, this bird is critically endangered and possibly even extinct. During the IUCN's last assessment, in 2020, there were believed to be only one to 49 mature individuals left.

During its prime, the ivory-billed woodpecker was common in the U.S. Southeast and Cuba. The Indigenous Peoples of North America used the ivory-billed’s long white beak for decorations and trading.

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Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)

A gila woodpecker perched at its nest on a cactus

Hal Beral / Getty Images

While woodpeckers generally prefer tree settings, the Gila calls the desert home. Common to the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, the Gila nests in living saguaro cactuses. After pecking out a hole, it waits months for the cactus pulp to dry before moving in. These birds are usually very conspicuous given their noisy, undulating calls.

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Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis)

Profile of Lewis's woodpecker with pink belly in a tree

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Named after Meriwether Lewis, who supposedly first saw this woodpecker in 1805 while traveling with William Clark, Lewis’s woodpecker is an aerial forager able to catch insects in midair. It is most common in the open woodlands of the western U.S. Its multicolored body is made up of pink, gray, and green. Lewis’s woodpecker numbers have been slowly declining, unfortunately.

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Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Dryobates nuttallii)

Nuttall"s woodpecker in a tree

Alexandra Rudge / Getty Images

William Gambel discovered the Nuttall’s woodpecker in 1843 and decided to name it after Thomas Nuttall, a famous English botanist and ornithologist. This black and white woodpecker has a spot of red in the back of its head. It is most common in California’s oak woodlands, though it does not feed on acorns.

Nuttall’s woodpecker has a rattling call and is on the larger side of the species, with a length of 6.3 to 7.1 inches.

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Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Pileated woodpecker on tree

Joel W. Rogers / Getty Images

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest in North America. The world almost lost this striking red-crested bird when forest clearings forced it into endangerment. Its numbers have been on the rise since the 20th century, however, and it is currently classes as a species of least concern."

If left alone, it can live in parks and woods surrounding cities. The pileated woodpecker is loudest when defending its territory.

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Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris)

Ladder-backed woodpecker from behind as it eats from a feeder

Warren_Price / Getty Images

The ladder-backed woodpecker has alternating black and white horizontal stripes running up its spine. On the smaller side, it's adept at moving through branches and foraging for insects. This woodpecker most closely resembles Nuttall’s and the two species actually sometimes interbreed in the Californian foothills.

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Arizona Woodpecker (Dryobates arizonae)

Two Arizona woodpeckers boring into either side of a branch

Mark Newman / Getty Images

This brown-backed woodpecker has white spots dotting the front of its body. Common in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the Arizona woodpecker resides only in the very south of Arizona and New Mexico. Since its habitat is restricted, the Arizona woodpecker is on Audubon’s conservation watchlist. The IUCN estimates there are only 200,000 mature individuals and decreasing but continues to list it as a species of least concern.

While foraging, the Arizona woodpecker begins by flying at the base of a tree then spirals up the trunk looking for insects.

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Black-Backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)

Black-backed woodpecker on a tree.

pchoui / Getty Images

This species is almost all black with a yellow spot capping its head. The black-backed woodpecker resides mostly in Canadian forests and parts of the Northern U.S., though it occasionally moves south outside of the breeding season. It can quickly locate burnt trees, feasting on the insects attracted to forest fires. The black-backed woodpecker can also blend in with the charred trees and is one of three woodpeckers that have three toes instead of four.

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Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (Dryobates borealis)

Three rare red-cockaded birds on a tree.

Elizabeth W. Kearley / Getty Images

The red-cockaded woodpecker has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1970 due to habitat loss from logging. Surviving red-cockaded woodpeckers stay in the U.S. Southeast year-round and work together in family groups.

This bird has been known to nest in the cavities of live pines infected with red heart fungus. It can take a group of these birds several years to excavate a single tree cavity.

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Eurasian Three-Toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Eurasian three-toed woodpecker in a tree.

Aleksander / Getty Images

Joining the American three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers, the Eurasian three-toed species is nonmigratory and sticks primarily to the Palearctic zone, including southern Scandinavia, Latvia, and parts of Moscow, Siberia, and Mongolia, among other European and Asian countries.

This bird is partial to coniferous forests. Once two Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers mate, monogamy is customary and both parents care strongly for their young. 

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Northern Flicker Woodpecker (Colaptes auratus)

Northern flicker with spotted breast on branch

Carol Senske / EyeEm / Getty Images

The northern flicker woodpecker has a gray-brown back and white butt, though males usually have black and red coloring as well. This species can usually be found in wooded areas with dead trees. The northern flicker tends to migrate from Alaska, moving south to eventually reach parts of northern Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Male flickers can immediately recognize females, employing "bill directing," "bill poking," "head swinging," and "head bobbing" against male rivals. The northern flicker has a particular preference for ants and crop-destroying aphids.

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Gilded Woodpecker (Colaptes chrysoides)

Gilded woodpecker on a cactus.

G Parekh / Getty Images

The gilded woodpecker prefers desert habitats and usually stays in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona year-round. This species is the largest and most common woodpecker to nest in saguaro cacti. It has a gray face with red sideburns and a black-speckled underbelly and wings.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is the most common species of woodpecker?

    The downy woodpecker is the most widespread globally and common throughout North America. It occurs almost everywhere in the U.S. except parts of the Southwest.

  • How many woodpecker species are there in North America?

    There are 23 woodpecker species in North America, including a handful of sapsuckers.

  • Why are so many woodpeckers black and white?

    The common black-and-white woodpecker pattern is an example of disruptive coloration. The sometimes-chaotic contrasting colors make it difficult for predators to decipher the shape and outline of a woodpecker.

View Article Sources
  1. "Woodpecker Species Of The United States: A Photo List Of All Native Species." American Bird Conservancy. 2020.

  2. "American Three-Toed Woodpecker." National Audubon Society.

  3. BirdLife International. "Campephilus principalis." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T22681425A182588014. Accessed on 22 June 2022.

  4. BirdLife International. 2016. "Melanerpes lewis." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T22680801A92879169. Accessed on 22 June 2022.

  5. BirdLife International. "Hylatomus pileatus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T22681363A92903232. Accessed on 22 June 2022.

  6. "Arizona Woodpecker." The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  7. BirdLife International. 2020. "Leuconotopicus arizonae." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T22729044A141045072. Accessed on 22 June 2022.

  8. "Red-Cockaded Woodpecker." The Cornell Lab or Ornithology.