Woodpeckers of Western New York


Woodpeckers of North America

How fortunate we are here in Western New York to have 7 different species of Woodpeckers living amongst us. Important in controlling insect populations, Woodpeckers are greatly served by the presence of dead trees, so leave them standing if they don’t pose a danger. Here’s a little information on each of our native Woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens): Our smallest woodpecker (at about 6″), the Downy is a common visitor to backyard feeders. You likely hear its location “peep” frequently as it seeks out insects in tree bark. Interestingly, the male and female “hunt” for food differently, with the male pecking holes into the wood and the female lifting up bark. This is due to variations in the male and female bills, the males with one that is stronger and longer; this allows the pair to make the most of available resources. Males also sport a bright red spot at the back of the head. A suet or peanut feeder is a great way to have the Downy as a regular visitor, especially in Winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius): One of the migrating Woodpeckers, this bird is second smallest at between 8 and 9 inches. Its belly is more a buff color than yellow and males and females are distinguished by the throat patch (males-red/females-white). Both genders have a red patch on their foreheads. Sapsuckers drill deeply into trees to exude the sap. While they do drink up some sap, there is also an ulterior motive. The sap attracts insects so a Sapsucker will “tap” the tree and then return a short time later to feast. They make regularly spaced and aligned holes on trees so it’s easy to see if a Sapsucker has been harvesting. Birch and Maple are among their favorites, but it is not uncommon to see them on fruit trees. In early Spring, watch for Hummingbirds following the Sapsuckers. The sap drawn by the Sapsucker is vital to “Hummer” survival before flowering begins and they feast upon the sweet liquid.

Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus): Looks almost exactly like the Downy except 1/3 larger at 9 inches. Also common, this species has a louder “peep” and often signals warning with a repetitive, steady call. Quite the scavenger, this Woodpecker serves trees well by devouring many destructive insects that live within them. Also easily attracted by suet and peanut feeders.

Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus): More of a rarity in our area, this migratory species is hard to miss, should you be so lucky to have one in your neighborhood. At about 10″, this Woodpecker has a solid, deep-red head, white underparts and black back (with white wing patches). It has a very long bill which is used to store nuts and acorns in deep crevices. They also feed while in flight, swooping across open fields in search of flying insects. Leaving dead snags and trees is beneficial for this species which they will use for nesting sites.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (M. carolinus): Much more common than its Red-Headed cousin, the 10″ Red-bellied minimally migrates so can often be spotted in Winter here in WNY. Besides the usual insects, this one also enjoys nuts and acorns, plus wild fruit, and uses its long beak to cache food. The female is distinguished from the male by having red on only the back half of its head. The lower belly is where the red feathers occur and it is much more predominant on the male.

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus): Our second largest Woodpecker, (~12″) the Northern Flicker is more often heard than seen. However, if you’ve an ant hill on your property, don’t be surprised to find a Flicker dining excitedly. This behavior sets them apart from their cousins as they are the only Woodpecker to feed regularly on the ground. Flickers have a loud repeated “wacka wacka” call and a long, clear “whistle” in their vocal repertoire. They are easily distinguished from other Woodpeckers by their brown coloration and dark brown “bib”. Males have a larger, dark red patch at the top of the neck than do the females as well as dark brown cheek stripes. Interestingly, the Northern Flicker varies from east to west in its range. In eastern territories, the feather shafts are colored yellow where in the western areas, they are red. This is why the variety found in Western New York is also called the Yellow-shafted Flicker (see below). These birds are generally migratory in our area.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus): The “king” of Woodpeckers in our area at ~17 inches. Most people are quite surprised at the size of this bird when initially spotted. However, like the Flicker, it is more often heard than seen and generally found in mature forests. However, if you have that type of habitat nearby, you can easily draw the Pileated to your property by leaving dead trees standing. Tracking Pileated territory is easily done by seeking out the large, rectangular cavities that this Woodpecker excavates in dead trees in its search for food, carpenter ants being among its favorites. The call is similar to the Flickers but has a different cadence and rises and lowers in volume. Males are distinguished from females by their red-striped cheeks.


A female Yellow-shafted morph of the Northern Flicker, common in the eastern portion of the bird’s range.
(photo courtesy of Distant Hill Gardens)


A male  Northern Flicker in its red morph, which is found in the western portion of the bird’s range.
(photo credit: Joan Gellatly)

13 thoughts on “Woodpeckers of Western New York

  1. We have a pileated woodpecker that spends time on our property and I actually was lucky enough to get within 10ft. from it the other day!! He/ she seems to be spending time in a woodpile going to town on a 3ft stump! It was the mmost beautiful sight I have ever seen! We , are located in Orange county N.Y. in a small town called Highland mills surrounded by woods . I read an article they are close to extinction is this true? A friend of mine had one on their old property nestled in the woods about 10 miles from us. I’m going to walk around our property today and see if he has marked up any trees as he has the stump. We have a huge variety of birds and feel fortunate! If I can get pictures I will forward them to you! Thanks for your time Tara Naughton 845-636-8795

    • Hi, Tara – while birds in general are facing frightening population losses (60% drop in the US since 1970), the Pileated Woodpecker is not considered endangered nor threatened. But it is important that wherever possible, dead trees, stumps and snags be left standing as Woodpeckers greatly depend on them for nest sites and insects. Moreover, many other bird species rely upon woodpecker-excavated cavities for their own nest sites, including Owls, Bluebirds, Chickadees, House Wrens and Tree Swallows. Looking forward to more on your Pileateds!!

  2. Just saw this pileated woodpecker going a stump here in Herkimer, Ny. Wow the size on colors! My boyfriend and I had to drive by twice just to see him! Amazing spotting.

  3. I’m in Fairport, NY. Today (1/24/18) a hawk, which I think was a big Cooper caught what I think was a Northern Flicker in my back yard. The Flicker was screaming (that’s how I noticed it), so I went out and tried to chase the hawk away, but the hawk grabbed the Flicker and flew behind the garage next door. I went back there and found the Flicker. I tried to prod him gently with a stick to get him to escape, but noticed the hawk had broken his wing. The hawk was waiting right above me so I decided to let nature take its’ course and I left. I felt so bad, but I guess the hawk has to eat too. Is the Flicker common prey for a Cooper?

    • Hi, Jeff – It’s always quite stunning when one witnesses a predator-prey encounter. But, as you note, it is the way of life and everyone has to eat. Birds are a common prey item for the Cooper’s Hawk, as well as the Sharp-shinned. These are the two most common hawks we see hanging around bird feeders and other places where smaller birds gather. The Northern Flicker is more vulnerable to hawk depredation than other woodpeckers in that it regularly ground feeds, being especially attracted to ant hills. You’ll remember this encounter for many years to come. While we may want to intervene in such events, in general letting things play out naturally leads to either a quicker end for the prey animal or, in some cases, may help in their escape. When an animal is being pursued by a predator, when we approach, the prey perceives a second threat and takes its eye off the initial predator, making it more vulnerable to capture. So, despite our good intentions, it’s really best to let things be. Tough choice, I know, having been present for a number of predator-prey interactions myself. But when we approach such events without emotion and consider the energy cycles/food webs inherent to life on Earth, we connect more closely to those cycles and our place among the other species with whom we share this planet. Thanks for sharing!

      • Thanks so much for your insight. Yes, I won’t forget that. Now I worry that there’s a beautiful woodpecker freezing to death back there because of the broken wing and a hawk that worked hard for a meal hrs won’t get. Oh well, live and learn. Thanks again.

  4. I have been so very blessed with many woodpecker sightings in our area of Baldwinsville NY.Pileated,Red bellied and the Downy woodpecker are seen and enjoyed.They seem to being doing quite well as they must contend with a very strong population of various hawks and a bald eagle population that seems to be ever increasing.Our woods,fields and rivers are an incredible place of peace and enjoyment.Love your website as well.Thanks. Jeffrey Baldwinsville NY

  5. there is another woodpecker that looks very much like the pileated and is an inch or two different in length. that is the one critically endangered . some believe already extinct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s