The sound of a woodpecker drumming takes you back to ancient times: tap tap tap echoing in the forest. New Jersey is no exception, and the ringing sound of drumming could be one of seven species of woodpecker found in the state.
I love watching woodpeckers. As a biologist, I’m fascinated by these species’ adaptations, and how all the parts of the woodpecker work together to drill holes in a tree is truly fascinating. From how they prevent brain damage when they bang their head against wood to their thickened tail feathers that provide a counterbalance to how their toe structure has changed to help with clinging to trees, they’re a marvel to look at.
All woodpeckers are in the Family Picidae. True woodpeckers fall in the Subfamily Picinae and, from there, are split into three Tribes. Of the seven New Jersey species, one falls in the Tribe Picini, while the other six are in the Tribe Melanerpini.
- Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – breeding
- Hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) – breeding
- Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) – breeding
- Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) – breeding/year-round
- Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) – year-round
- Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) – breeding
- Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) – year-round
Bottom Line Up Front
Of the seven woodpeckers you’ll find in New Jersey, the most common ones are the downy and hairy woodpeckers. Red-bellied woodpeckers are also fairly common, and northern flickers can also be. You’ll usually find pileated woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the right habitat, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find the least common, a red-headed woodpecker.
All woodpeckers excavate their own nest cavity in a tree, and all eat insects. However, the details can vary greatly, and below, you’ll learn the idiosyncrasies of each species.
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
If you’ve ever had a backyard bird feeder or seen any species of woodpecker, odds are it’s either this or the similar-looking hairy woodpecker. While downy woodpeckers are the more common of the two at backyard feeders, you’ll still need to tell these two species apart! Both species have a white back, black and white spotted wings, a white throat and belly, a tail with black inner and white outer feathers, and a head with a black crown, black eye stripe, and black mustache. There are three main features to tell the two species apart:
- body size: downy woodpeckers are about 2/3 the size of a hairy woodpecker
- beak size: the beak of a downy is about 1/3 the size of its head, while that of a hairy is as long as its head
- outer tail feathers: a downy has a few black spots on the outer tail feathers, while a hairy’s outer tail feathers are pure white
The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. They are habitat generalists, and their small size helps them sustain themselves in small forest and urban patches. They still require dead trees of sufficient diameter for nesting, so they cannot use early successional habitat.
- Size: 21-28 g
- Number of eggs: 4-6 (range 3-8)
- Incubation: 12 days
- Fledging: 18-21 days
- Life span: 12 years
There is evidence that the sexes use habitat differently (it’s easy to tell the sexes apart: males have red at the back of their heads while females do not). Males have shorter wings and tails and use smaller branches; the larger females use larger branches and tree trunks. This species also follows Bergmann’s Rule, which describes how larger individuals are found in colder climates. Larger animals have a lower surface area to volume ratio than smaller animals, so they radiate less body heat per unit of mass and therefore stay warmer. That means larger downy woodpeckers are found in the northern parts of their range and at higher elevations.
Downy woodpeckers will readily come to backyard bird feeders. If you have any woods nearby, chances are you can attract one of these in the winter.
Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)
Hairy woodpeckers are aggressive, especially toward downy woodpeckers. They’ll chase most other species away, especially at feeders. It turns out this is an important clue as to why hairy and down woodpeckers look similar.
Downy woodpeckers evolved to look like the more aggressive hairy woodpecker because other birds would think the smaller downy is the bigger hairy, and so the smaller downy gets access to food by mimicking the aggressive species. This kind of convergent evolution has happened many times in woodpeckers.
- Size: 38-95 g (lighter birds from island populations)
- Number of eggs: 4 (range 3-7)
- Incubation: 11-15 days
- Fledging: 28-30 days
- Life span: 16 years
This species also show latitudinal variation in size, with larger individuals in the north and at higher elevations. They are also quite variable in plumage and other aspects of body size across their range, reflecting the designation of 17 subspecies. Males and females look identical, except males have red on the nape of their necks.
These birds are more forest-dependent though the forested areas do not need to be large. Clear-cutting has likely contributed to population losses over the years. They are less abundant than downy woodpeckers, even in their natural habitat.
The downy and hairy woodpeckers consume insects on and in trees and switch to seeds and berries in the winter, like all birds that stay year-round in cold climates. Hairy woodpeckers will also come to backyard feeders if you have the right habitat nearby.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
Most people who have seen this bird are confused by its name because the red belly is hard to see and is just a pale pink-red wash. I was convinced these were red-headed woodpeckers for a while because I had never seen a real red-headed woodpecker, and that name seemed much more accurate. But the red-bellied woodpecker looks quite different, with a buff throat and belly and strongly striped black and white wings. Both sexes have red on the nape of their neck, but only in males does it merge into a red crown. The longer outermost and short innermost tail feathers are barred, and the ones between are black.
- Size: 56-91 g
- Number of eggs: 4 (range 2-6)
- Incubation: 12 days
- Fledging: 24-27 days
- Life span: 12 years
This species also comes to backyard feeders quite readily. They have very general habitat requirements and have no problem using urban areas. It doesn’t excavate food as often as other woodpeckers, so it has more general feeding requirements, eating any insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, and even small vertebrates it can find.
This is one of the few species expanding their range and increasing in population size, likely due to its generalist requirements and the extent of bird feeders present. They will also use telephone poles and fence posts to nest in, even though dead trees are preferred.
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
This species doesn’t look like any of the other woodpeckers found in the state, which reflects its more distant evolutionary relationship with those other birds (remember, northern flickers are in a separate Tribe). Of the ten subspecies of northern flicker, the northern yellow-shafted flicker (C. a. luteus) is found in New Jersey.
Northern flickers are a brown bird with a black spotted chest and wings, a slate grey crown and nape of neck separated by a patch of red, and a black crescent on their chest. Males have a black stripe like a mustache, which females lack, and males are slightly larger than females. One of their most distinctive features is their white rump, which is often the easiest clue that you’ve flushed one foraging on the ground. I know there’s been more than one occasion that white rump let me identify this bird as it burst from the grass near me, where I hadn’t even seen it foraging!
- Size: 106-187 g
- Number of eggs: 6-8 (range 3-12)
- Incubation: 11-12 days
- Fledging: 24-27 days
- Life span: 9 years
They are primarily insect eaters, especially ants, and spend large quantities of time foraging on the ground in grasses. They will also eat berries and seeds and switch to these alternative food sources in the winter, like most birds that rely on insects in the summer.
They’re migratory in the northern part of their range, but in New Jersey, they are year-round residents. Their population has declined, possibly due to nest competition with non-native starlings. It doesn’t help that historically birds were often shot for sport: in the early 1900s, “piles of dead birds as high as a man’s knees were frequent sights” (Stone 1937).
There are at least 100 different common names for this bird, derived from its calls, including yellowhammer, clape, gaffer woodpecker, harry-wicket, heigh-ho, wake-up, walk-up, wick-up, yarrup, and gawker bird.
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
This is North America’s largest woodpecker and can’t be confused with any other.
The pileated woodpecker is mainly black, with a white line above the eye, a white stripe from the beak to the back of the head that angles down along the side of the neck, and a white throat. It also has a red crest; since the head feathers are usually erect, this is an unmistakable feature. Females have a black forehead, while males have a red forehead and a red mustache.
- Size: 228-324 g
- Number of eggs: 4 (range 1-6)
- Incubation: 15-18 days
- Fledging: 24-31 days
- Life span: 10 years
They use conifer, deciduous, and mixed forests. These birds defend territories in pairs year-round and require dead trees large enough to contain their nesting and roosting cavities. Thus the loss of older forests with larger trees likely limits their population size.
Large birds make large cavities, creating critical nesting sites for other species requiring large cavities, such as mammals, ducks, and owls. Because they provide necessary shelter for so many species, they are termed a keystone species, meaning their effects on the ecosystem are larger than their abundance suggests. They also help decompose wood by breaking it down while searching for food. They also help control beetle pests because beetle larvae are one of their favorite prey. Despite their large size, their other favorite prey is tiny ants.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
This species is identified by the broad barring on its back, lightly barred flanks, and partially spotted wings with a solid white wing patch. They have white rumps and barred inner and black outer tail feathers. They have two broad white head stripes and black on the nape of the neck, plus a red crown. Males have a red throat, while females have a white throat.
Sapsuckers behave differently from other woodpeckers. As their name suggests, they mainly feed on sap, creating a series of shallow wells or rectangles where the sapsucker keeps flowing by licking or inserting their beak and probing. Their tongues are shorter and have stiffer hairs than other woodpeckers to help the sap adhere.
- Size: 38-62 g
- Number of eggs: 4-5 (range 2-7)
- Incubation: 10-13 days
- Fledging: 23-29 days
- Life span: 6 years
They also eat insects, including ones trapped in the sap, plus fruits, nuts, and plants’ inner bark and cambium layers. They have been recorded using over 1,000 species of perennial plants to obtain sap, perhaps explaining why this species has a wide distribution.
Of all the woodpeckers found in New Jersey, this is the only one that migrates from the state. New Jersey is right on the edge of their summer and winter ranges, which interestingly have a gap right above the state line. Despite this, eBird shows that a few individuals are present in extreme northwest New Jersey during the breeding season. However, you’re far more likely to come across this species during the non-breeding season from October to April.
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
IUCN previously listed the red-headed woodpeckers as Near-Threatened as they had experienced a 65% decline in population, but they were down-listed globally in 2018 to Least Concern, even though population trends are still showing a decrease in numbers. However, they are still listed as Threatened in New Jersey (and Endangered in Canada), so populations are not secure. Population declines are due to road mortality – it feeds low and often swoops across roads; habitat loss – large and dead trees are frequently removed; and intentional killing by farmers to reduce crop damage and milliners for decorative feathers.
I think this is one of the prettier woodpeckers, with its distinctive solid red head, black wings with white secondary feathers, and white throat and belly. Knowing they are listed and rare made the few sightings I’ve had of them even more special, though my goal of photographing them failed because they were very skittish around people.
- Size: 56-90 g
- Number of eggs: 4-7 (range 3-12)
- Incubation: 12-14 days
- Fledging: 23-31 days
- Life span: 10 years
This is one of only a few species of woodpeckers known to store insects – one report described 100 live grasshoppers wedged into a fence post! Their habitat preference is open forests; they need open areas to forage for insects and berries. You can find the red-headed woodpecker in various human-modified habitats, from farms to orchards to trees in town.
This species may stay year-round in New Jersey or migrate south in the winter. Their decision to stay or go depends on the availability of nuts, such as acorns, beech, or hickory, which they also store to eat during the winter.
Question: Why do downy and hairy woodpeckers look so similar?
Answer: Species can look alike because of shared ancestry or convergent evolution (climate, habitat, and competitors). A recent study examined these factors and found that competition was the most likely reason hairy and downy woodpeckers look similar. The idea is that when species overlap, the subordinate species evolves to look like the dominant species so that it gains the protection of looking like the aggressive, dominant species and so can get resources from other species of birds.
Question: How do woodpeckers avoid brain damage from banging their heads?
Answer: Though for many years it was thought their brains had extra cushioning, and so acted as a shock absorber, new research points to their small size, plus the very short duration of impact (when the beak hits the wood), keeping their brain safe.
Question: Where can I see other woodpeckers?
Answer: There are occasional reports of black-backed woodpeckers in New Jersey, so if you’re lucky, you’ll see this boreal forest specialist. If you head just a little bit south into Maryland, you’ll enter the range of the red-cockaded woodpecker. You’ll need to go north into New York to find any three-toed woodpeckers. All other woodpeckers are located much farther west.
Even though New Jersey isn’t the most speciose woodpecker region in North America, its seven species span the range of body sizes, from the smallest (downy) to the largest (pileated); lifestyles, foraging on ants, sap, and everything in between; habitat requirements, from generalists to specialists; and abundance, from the ubiquitous downy to the declining red-headed. With a little searching, a woodpecker enthusiast should be able to find all seven species. Remember, dead trees are necessary for all these birds to excavate their nest cavities, so support activities that keep these important features on the landscape.
Birds of the World (2022). Edited by S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/home
Stone, W. (1937). Bird Studies at Old Cape May: an Ornithology of Coastal New Jersey. Delaware Valley Ornithology Club, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
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