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Side profile of a Pileated Woodpecker bird on a tree in winter
Shawn McCready
Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Pileated Woodpecker

With the leaves off the trees, winter can be a good time of the year to do some woodpecker watching.

For most of us, the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are probably the most observed woodpeckers during the winter months. They are quite similar, but the Hairy is a little bigger — about 7-10 inches in length, while the Downy is a little shorter, around 5-7 inches long. With both species, the males can be identified by the red patch on the back of their head.

As you might expect, North Dakota is not a woodpecker paradise. But even though our state ranks as the least-forested state in the nation, Robert Steward lists seven species of woodpeckers in his Breeding Birds of North Dakota: Downy, Hairy, Red-headed, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-shafted Flicker, Red-shafted Flicker, and the Pileated Woodpecker.

When looking at the distribution maps of woodpeckers in bird guides, it becomes apparent that most woodpeckers are not big migrants. Most are permanent residents within their range, or perhaps are only summer residents in the northern regions of their range. One exception to that is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which spends the summer in our northern regions and winters in the southern states.

Although woodpeckers may be easily observed during the winter in bird feeders, it is often the sound of their “wood pecking” that first tips us off to their presence in the area. As most everyone knows, they may be hammering away on the trees for more than one reason:

  • A quiet tapping is generally the sound produced when the woodpeckers are accessing insects.
  • When they are establishing territories and attracting mates, the hammering is more accurately described as a drumming.
  • It is the slower “whack, whack, whack” that generally indicates that a woodpecker is excavating a nesting cavity.

Woodpeckers are actually quite common in our area, and we have a few species that can provide some good entertainment, as well as help us better understand their biology and ecology. So be on the lookout for these interesting birds. They will reward you — and maybe even hammer out a message to you.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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