20 Captivating Types of Woodpeckers

A woodpecker resting on a tree.

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More than 300 woodpecker species have been identified in the natural world and 23 of them live in the United States. Since 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

A red-bellied woodpecker resting on a branch.

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You’d think the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has a 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 United States.

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Acorn Woodpecker

An acorn woodpecker filling a granary tree.

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The acorn woodpecker, unsurprisingly, drills most often in oak trees. The Melanerpes formicivorus hoards acorns in the holes it pecks into dead trees — known as "granary trees" — to feed on throughout winter. They rarely ever feed 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

A red-headed woodpecker.

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The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is completely covered in a burnt 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 and 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

A golden-fronted woodpecker hanging off a tree.

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The golden-fronted woodpecker certainly has a unique appearance, with its zebra-patterned body and speckles of yellow and red on its head. Melanerpes aurifrons’ 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

A white-headed woodpecker.

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White-headed woodpeckers (Dryobates albolarvatus) have small red spots on the crowns of their white heads, paired with mostly black bodies. It prefers mountain pine forests in the Western United States and feeds 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

American three-toed woodpecker on a tree.

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While woodpeckers usually have four toes, the Picoides dorsalis stands out for having just three. This woodpecker species 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 3 C (5.4 F) warming of the planet will lead to significant habitat loss for the three-toed woodpecker.

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Hairy Woodpecker

A hairy woodpecker perched on a tree stump.

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A close look-a-like of the downy woodpecker, the hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) 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. The oldest hairy woodpecker recorded was thought to be almost 16 years old, and counting.

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Downy Woodpecker

A downy woodpecker perched on a branch.

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

The downy is small, with a length of about 5.5-6.7 inches. Males are distinguished by a small red patch on its head. They are attracted to open woodlands and are most noisy in the spring and summer.

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Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

A drawing of two ivory-billed woodpeckers.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is the third-largest species in the world and the largest living north of Mexico. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, most of the ivory-billed’s population has been eliminated. Only a small number still survive, though they have remained relatively unseen.

During its prime, the ivory-billed woodpecker was common in the Southeastern United States 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

A gila woodpecker at its nest.

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While woodpeckers generally prefer tree settings, the Gila (Melanerpes uropygialis) calls the desert home. Common to the Southwestern United States 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. They are usually very conspicuous, with a noisy, undulating call.

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Lewis’ Woodpecker

Lewis's woodpecker 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’ woodpecker is an aerial forager able to catch insects in midair. The Melanerpes lewis is most common in the open woodlands of the Western United States. Its multicolored body is made up of pink, gray, and green. Lewis’ woodpecker numbers have been declining, unfortunately. 

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Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Nuttall"s woodpecker in a tree.

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While the Nuttall’s woodpecker was found by William Gambel in 1843, Gambel chose 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 (Dryobates nuttallii) 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

Pileated woodpecker on a tree.

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The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is one of the largest of its family in North America. The world almost lost this striking red-crested bird when forest clearings forced the pileated woodpecker into endangerment. Its numbers have been on the rise since the 20th century, however. 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

Ladder-backed woodpecker on a branch.

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The ladder-backed woodpecker has alternating black and white horizontal stripes running up its spine. On the smaller side, the Dryobates scalaris is 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

Arizona woodpeckers boring into wood.

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This brown-backed woodpecker has white spots dotting the front of its body. Common in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the Arizona woodpecker (Dryobates arizonae) 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. While foraging, the Arizona woodpecker begins flying at the base of a tree and spirals up the trunk looking for insects.

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Black-Backed Woodpecker

Black-backed woodpecker on a tree.

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This species is almost all black with a yellow spot capping its head. The black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) resides mostly in Canadian forests and parts of the Northern United States, though it occasionally moves south during the nonbreeding 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

Rare red-cockaded birds on a tree.

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The red-cockaded woodpecker species has been listed as Endangered since 1970 due to habitat loss from logging. Surviving red-cockaded woodpeckers stay in the Southeastern United States year-round and work together in family groups.

Dryobates borealis 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

Eurasian three-toed woodpecker in a tree.

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

The Picoides tridactylus 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

A northern flicker perched on a branch.

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The northern flicker woodpecker (Colaptes auratus) 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

Gilded woodpecker on a cactus.

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The gilded woodpecker (Colaptes chrysoides) 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.

View Article Sources
  1. "Woodpeckers." Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

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

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