Cover Photo: Rose-breasted Grosbeak from the Surfbirds galleries © Mark Szantyr

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Woodpeckers and Nuthatches of North America

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

The adult birds are about 155 millimeters (6 inches) long. In the adult male the cap and a band on the upper mantle are black. The rest of the upper parts are a pale blue-gray. The wing coverts and flight feathers are blackish with paler fringes. The tertials are often marked with pale gray and black. There is a slight wing bar in the greater coverts. The face and the underparts are white. The White-breasted Nuthatch is the only North American nuthatch in which the white of the face completely surrounds the eye. The outer tail feathers are black with broad diagonal white bands across the outer three feathers. They have short legs with long claws, short wings and a short tail.

Their breeding habitat is deciduous and mixed forests across North America. They nest in a tree cavity, either natural or excavated by a woodpecker.

These birds are permanent residents, sometimes moving south in winter.

They forage on the trunk and large branches of trees, and are well-known for descending head first, a behavior unique to the white-breasted nuthatch. Their principal diet consists of insects and a few varieties of seeds. They often travel with small mixed flocks in winter.

The call is a nasal yeah-yeah-yeah in the east or a fast yididit in the west.

Photo © Sean Cronin

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Adults are mainly black on the upper parts and wings, with a white back, throat and belly and white spotting on the wings. There is a white bar above and below the eye. They have a black tail with white outer feathers barred with black. Adult males have a red patch on the back of the head. It is similar in appearance to the much larger Hairy Woodpecker.

Their breeding habitat is forested areas, mainly deciduous, across most of North America to Central America. They nest in a tree cavity, excavated by the nesting pair in a dead tree or limb.

These birds are mostly permanent residents. Northern birds may migrate further south; birds in mountainous areas may move to lower elevations.

These birds forage on trees, picking the bark surface in summer and digging deeper in winter. They mainly eat insects, also seeds and berries.

Photo © Tim Avery

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Adults are brown with black bars on the back and wings. Their breast and belly are beige with black spots; they have a black "necklace". The tail is dark on top. They show a white rump in flight. There are two variants which were formerly considered separate species:

The Yellow-shafted Flicker resides in eastern North America. They are yellow under the tail and underwings and have yellow shafts on their primaries. They have a grey cap, a beige face and a red bar on their neck.

The Red-shafted Flicker resides in western North America. They are red under the tail and underwings and have red shafts on their primaries. They have a beige cap, a grey face and a red mustache.

These two variants interbreed where their ranges overlap.

Their breeding habitat is forested areas across North America, as far south as Central America. They nest in a cavity in a tree or post; this bird excavates its own home. Abandoned flicker nests create habitat for other cavity nesters. They are sometimes driven from nesting sites by European Starlings.

It takes about 1 to 2 weeks to build the nest which is built by both sexes of the mating pairs. Damaged nests or previously abandoned cavities may be repaired. The entrance hole is roughly 5cm to 10cm wide. Flickers will sometimes be willing to use a birdhouse if it is adequately sized and properly situated.

Typically 6 to 8 eggs are laid, having a shell that is pure white with a smooth surface and high gloss. The eggs are the largest of the North American woodpecker species, exceeded only by the Pileated Woodpecker's egg. Incubation is by both sexes for approximately 11 to 12 days. The young are fed by regurgitation and leave the nest about 25 to 28 days after hatching.

Northern birds migrate to the southern parts of the range; southern birds are often permanent residents.

These birds feed on the ground, probing with their bill, also sometimes catching insects in flight. Although they eat fruits, berries, seeds and nuts, their primary food is insects. Ants alone can make up to 45% of their diet.

This bird's call is a sustained laugh, ki ki ki ki ..., more congenial than that of the Pileated Woodpecker. Flickers often drum on trees or even metal objects to declare territory.

Photo © Richard Carter

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Adults have a black back and tail with a red head and neck. Their underparts are mainly white. The wings are black with white secondaries. Non-birders often mistakenly identify the Red-bellied Woodpecker as this species.

Their breeding habitat is open country across southern Canada and the eastern-central United States. They nest in a cavity in a dead tree or a dead part of a tree.

Northern birds migrate to the southern parts of the range; southern birds are often permanent residents.

These birds fly to catch insects in the air or on the ground, forage on trees or gather and store nuts. They are omnivorous, eating insects, seeds, fruits, berries and nuts.

Once abundant, populations have seriously declined since 1966 due to increased nesting competition from starlings and removal of dead trees (used as nesting sites) from woodlands. Many Northeastern states no longer have nesting red-headed woodpeckers. They give a "tchur-tchur" call or drum on territory.

Photo © Robert Hughes

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

The adult has a black head, back, wings and tail, white forehead, throat, belly and rump. The eyes are white. The adult male has a red cap starting at the forehead, whereas females have a black area between the forehead and the cap.

The breeding habitat is forested areas with oaks in the hills of coastal California and the southwestern United States south to Colombia. This species may occur at low elevations in the north of its range, but rarely below 1000m in Central America, and it breeds up to the timberline. The breeding pair excavate a nest in a large cavity in a dead tree or a dead part of a tree. A group of adults may participate in nesting activities: field studies have shown that breeding groups range from monogamous pairs to breeding collectives of seven males and three females, plus up to 10 nonbreeding helpers.

Acorn Woodpeckers are larder hoarders. Breeding groups gather acorns and create a granary by drilling holes in a dead tree and stuffing acorns into them. The acorns are visible, and the group defends the tree against potential cache robbers. The acorns represent a significant part of their diet; they also eat insects, picking them off tree bark or catching them in flight, and in addition fruit, seeds and sometimes tree sap.

This bird is a permanent resident throughout its range. They may relocate to another area if acorns are not readily available.

Photo © Sean Cronin

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Adults are mainly light grey on the face and underparts; they have black and white barred patterns on their back, wings and tail. Adult males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape; females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The red belly is difficult to view on a live bird.

Their breeding habitat is deciduous forests in southern Canada and the eastern United States. They nest in a cavity in a dead tree; the male begins excavation in several locations and the female selects the site.

They are permanent residents but may change location; some birds may wander north. In extreme weather, northern birds may move south.

These birds search out insects on tree trunks. They may also catch insects in flight. They are omnivores, eating insects, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Photo © Mark S. Szantyr

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Adults are mainly black with a red crest and a white line down the sides of the throat. Adult males have a red line from the bill to the throat and red on the front of the crown. In adult females, these are black. They show white on the wings in flight. The only birds of similar plumage and size are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which is extremely rare and was thought extinct until documented sightings and sound recordings in 2004 and 2005, and the Imperial Woodpecker, a bird native to Mexico which is presumed extinct.

Their breeding habitat is forested areas with large trees across Canada, the eastern United States and parts of the Pacific coast. They nest in a large cavity in a dead tree or a dead part of a tree; this bird usually excavates a new home each year, creating habitat for other large cavity nesters.

This bird is usually a permanent resident.

These birds chip out holes, often quite large and roughly rectangular, while searching out insects in trees. They mainly eat insects, especially beetle larvae, carpenter ants, and fruits, berries and nuts.

The call is a wild laugh, similar to the Northern Flicker. This bird favors mature forests, but has adapted to use second-growth stands and heavily wooded parks as well.

Photos © Chris Charlesworth

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

The Golden-fronted Woodpecker Melanerpes aurifrons is a North American woodpecker. Its preferred habitat is mesquite and riparian woodlands in Texas and Oklahoma. Cooke listed this species as an abundant resident of the lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas, in 1884.

Nest: Nesting behavior of the golden-fronted is similar to that of the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Tall trees of pecan, oak, and mesquite are the major species used for nesting. Occasionally fence posts, telephone poles, and bird boxes are used.

Food: The diet of the golden-fronted woodpecker consists of both insects and vegetable matter. Grasshoppers make up more than half of the animal matter and other insects include beetles and ants. Vegetable matter consumed consists of corn, acorns, wild fruits, and berries.

Photo © Chris Brogdale