I thought I would dedicate today’s post to woodpeckers. I do not intend to focus on just one species of woodpeckers, but actually look at how to differentiate common in New Jersey woodpeckers from one another. According to Birds of New Jersey: A Field Guide, there are six woodpecker species that are commonly found in the State of New Jersey: the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. I would add the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a common winter resident of New Jersey. These are the seven woodpeckers that you are most likely to encounter in New Jersey.
I am not saying that you will never see another species of woodpecker in the state. As with any bird species, there are anomalies due to weather conditions, wind currents, etc. which take a bird from its normal pattern. There have been isolated sightings of uncommon woodpeckers within New Jersey, including a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, sighted in Hoboken around 1860 and an American Three-Toed Woodpecker, seen in West Englewood in 1918. Indeed, there have been sixteen sightings of the Black-Backed Woodpecker in New Jersey, occurring in various counties, north and south. Although, it must be pointed out that several of those sightings were of the same bird, by different observers.
I must start my descriptions by clarifying that I have not seen all seven of these woodpeckers personally. I have never seen a Pileated Woodpecker. Therefore with this species, I will rely on my trusty field guides. The key distinguishing feature of the Pileated Woodpecker is its size. They measure about sixteen or seventeen inches, making them not just New Jersey’s, but also North America’s largest woodpecker. The only other woodpecker to come close is the Northern Flicker, measuring between twelve and thirteen inches. For comparison, most of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post measure about nine inches. The physical appearance of the Pileated Woodpecker is also distinct. Most of their bodies are black, with white and red markings on their head. The red is very prominent, creating a bright crest across the top of the bird’s head. The crest also gives the Pileated Woodpecker’s head a triangular appearance. Despite their size, the Pileated Woodpecker is relatively shy and tends to choose habitats that include large woodlands, which may be why I have never encountered one in the flesh. In New Jersey they tend to concentrate in the northern part of the state, especially toward the west and along the border with Pennsylvania. Being such a large bird, their presence in trees is much more obvious than some of their fellow woodpeckers, as they make very large oval holes in which to nest. To get a look at the Pileated Woodpecker, I suggest you visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id
The Red-Headed Woodpecker is probably the closest in appearance to the Pileated Woodpecker, but that really is not saying much. The similarity arises because the Red-Headed Woodpecker also has a mostly black back. However, the Red- Headed Woodpecker is both much smaller, measuring about nine inches, but he also has a round head, without even the hint of a crest. The Red-Headed Woodpecker also is not nearly as black as the Pileated Woodpecker. Despite his black wings, his snow white belly and wing tips are very prominent. Of course, as you can probably guess from its name, the Red-Headed Woodpecker’s most distinct feature is its completely red head. It almost appears as if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s bill is not as good at excavating holes in trees as its fellow woodpeckers, so it is more likely to be found in dead or decaying branches. If it can, it will sometimes just take over the abandoned nest of one of its fellow woodpeckers. Because if the need for decaying trees, the Red-Headed Woodpecker tends to be seen on the edges of forest or in more open woodland than the Pileated Woodpecker. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is another bird I haven’t seen many of. The pictures included here are of Red-Headed Woodpeckers I spotted in Maryland, as I have never been lucky enough to see any in New Jersey, despite their presence. For better photos you can visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/id
In my opinion the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is most often confused with the Red-Headed Woodpecker because it too has a red head. Unlike the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the red of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is not nearly as prominent. Imagine a mohawk or mullet and you will start to get the idea. The red plumage starts at the forehead and goes across the top of the head, between the eyes, and terminates at the back of the neck. The shade of red is also different. It is a brighter, lighter red, as compared to the almost blood red shade found on the Red-Headed Woodpecker. Another difference, which I think is easily the most identifiable feature of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, is the pattern of black and white on its wings. While other woodpeckers have spots or speckles, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker has what can only be described as zigzags or stripes. One guide calls it “Zebra-backed.” When its wings are at rest, the white sections of their plumage connect to form lines rather than a random pattern. In person it is quite dazzling. The one thing that you will probably not notice about the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is his “red” belly. I think the people who give birds their common names were reaching a bit with this one! The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has a stripe of colored feathers in the middle of its belly, which can be seen against the rest of its white belly if you look very closely. More tan than red, it sometimes has a tinge of rust color to it. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is common throughout woodland habitats and can be seen in New Jersey year-round. Not only is it a resident bird, but the Red-Bellied Woodpecker will often return to the same tree year after year, creating a new nest hole below the nest from the previous year. Not great news for the tree, but a nice way to keep track of a particular breeding pair.
Hairy Woodpeckers (above), and Downy Woodpeckers (below) represent the hardest two woodpeckers to distinguish, from each other. They both appear almost identical, especially at a quick glance. Both have black wings, with white splotches and a white stripe down the middle. Their bellies, also white, are often very fluffy or downy looking. Their heads, like several other woodpeckers, have stripes of white and black. The largest bands of black being across their eyes, and over the top of the their heads, from their beak to the nape of their necks. The males of both species sport a small, bright red patch on the back of their heads. So how does one tell these two apart? The honest answer is that sometimes it is very difficult to do so. Looking back at photos for this article, I sometimes struggled to distinguish between them. It is even more difficult as the Hairy Woodpeckers send their smaller fledglings out into the world, who are sometimes about the same size as an adult Downy Woodpecker.
But there are a few characteristics that you might be able to use, if the bird will sit still long enough, or if you have a photograph to examine. The first, and most obvious is their size. The Hairy Woodpecker is similar in size to many of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post, usually measuring about nine inches. The adult Downy Woodpecker is more petite, growing to about six inches, about the same size as a House Sparrow. The Downy Woodpecker also has black spots along the side of its tail, something the Hairy Woodpecker does not have. The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is also longer than that of the Downy Woodpecker.
As I mentioned above, I am including the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker because it is commonly found throughout the state during the winter months. Arguably the winter is the best time of year to look for woodpeckers, when the leaves are off the trees and visibility in the forest is much better. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has many features similar to one or the other of its fellow woodpeckers, however the combination of all of these features makes its appearance rather unique. Smaller than the Pileated Woodpecker, it shares the red crest. On closer inspection, the red crest of the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is not as long as that of the Pileated. Besides the crest, their faces are very similar with a mix of black and white lines running across the face from the beak to the back of the head. But at the neck, the similarities to the Pileated Woodpecker end. The back and wings are much more like those of the Hairy or Downy Woodpeckers, black with speckles of white. Here too there is some slight differences. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers both have black wings with distinct white splotches, well defined. Almost as it someone had taken a paintbrush, pressed down and then lifted the brush straight off its back. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker’s back is much more mixed and blurred. More like someone ran a white dry-brush over the top of its black back. The reverse effect seems to be the case for its belly, mostly white, but for a smudging of black. A resident of deciduous forests, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be found in New Jersey roughly between October and April. You need to keep your eyes peeled for them though, they are fairly quiet and often manage to avoid detection. The few photos I am sharing here are of the only Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker that I have ever seen, spotted in early spring on one of the wooded trails at Garret Mountain Reservation.
The Northern Flicker is probably most different from all other woodpeckers. Some field guides do not even group the Northern Flicker with the other woodpeckers. The second largest of the woodpeckers who call New Jersey home, the Northern Flicker is colored very differently from it fellows. A brown or dark tan body contrasts with the white and black of the others. The Northern Flicker has both round, black spots on its belly and black splotches (irregular in shape) on its back. The black splotches on the wings form a dizzying pattern similar to that found on the Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s wings. There is also a black section on the bird’s breast, almost like a necklace. The Northern Flicker’s head and face are fairly plain, having some gray on the top of its head, a small splash of red at the nape of the neck and, in the case of the males, a black, triangular “mustache” on either cheek. However, appearances are not the only way that one can easily distinguish the Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers. The Northern Flicker is also the only woodpecker that can be seen feeding from the ground regularly. This is because the Northern Flicker likes to eat ants and beetles, rather than the insects more commonly found in trees. So they spend a lot of time wandering slowly on their feet, along the ground searching for ant holes.
While I have been spending all this time trying to point out the differences between these woodpeckers, they do have a lot of obvious similarities. Most of these woodpeckers, with the exception of the Northern Flicker and probably the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, will visit a suet feeder. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are all commonly seen at my feeders. In fact, I have had a Red-Bellied Woodpecker get into my seed feeders as well on several occasions. While they may differ on which bugs and insects they prefer, they all have long barbed tongues, which help them to get into tiny spaces and pull out insects. They also all nest in tree cavities, of varying sizes. So next time you hear that distinct “knock, knock, knock” of a woodpecker on a tree, take a look up and try to see if you can figure out which kind of woodpecker is making all the racket!