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Blane Klemek column: Minnesota boasts nine species of woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are a group of birds perfectly adapted for what they do best.

That is, of course, pecking at trees and probing underneath bark searching for insects, as well as sounding their respective and individual "rat-tat-tat" springtime territorial sounds. So many woodpeckers make their home right here in Minnesota, some all year 'round, some for just the breeding and nesting season.

These fascinating birds belong to the avian order Piciformes, which are represented by eight different families. The unmistakable toucan that inhabits South America and parts of Central America is a member of this diverse group. And the family Picidae, woodpeckers, is the largest of the eight families.

Woodpeckers can be found worldwide, except throughout Australia, New Guinea and the islands of the southwest Pacific. Here in Minnesota, we have nine species of woodpeckers that frequent our forests, woodlands and backyards, both rural and urban.

One of my favorite Minnesota woodpeckers is the downy woodpecker. Here's a woodpecker that nearly everyone is familiar with. A friendly bird, common at our suet feeders, the diminutive "downy" has also the shortest bill relative to its size of any woodpecker in North America. Indeed, at not much more than five inches long, the downy woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker.

Downys, which share traits with their larger cousin the hairy woodpecker, are often misidentified as hairy woodpeckers because of the striking similarities between the two species. That said, hairys are about two inches longer than downys, plus the beaks of hairy woodpeckers are much longer proportionately than the downy woodpeckers'. A good ID tip? A downy woodpecker's beak is about half as long as its head, whereas the beak of the hairy woodpecker is about as long as its head.

Some woodpeckers, like the northern flicker, which look every bit the woodpecker it is, often behave very "unwoodpecker-like." Flickers are frequently observed on the ground as they search for and feed on ants. Though quite abundant around my home during the spring, summer and fall months (flickers don't spend the winter here), people often don't notice flickers until they gather in small to medium sized groups during the spring and fall migrations. Flickers are often attracted to our lawns for the easy hunting mowed vegetation affords them.

While most woodpeckers are appreciated for their uniqueness in the bird world, there is one species of woodpecker that, in some respects, is not quite so endearing. The yellow-bellied sapsucker, for example, is locally quite numerous in woodlands and orchards throughout the state. These are the birds responsible for the puzzling rows of small holes encircling the trunks of trees that people complain about, sometimes even killing the affected trees.

So, why all the tiny holes? This woodpecker loves to consume the sap of trees and so "drills" holes through the bark, causing the sweet liquid sap to run out. Although called a sapsucker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker really doesn't suck sap at all. What the bird actually does is to stick its brush-like tongue into the sap-filled holes to eat the sap and any insects that might be trapped in it.

Other woodpeckers have long, barb-tipped tongues, so long in fact that they wrap around their brains. And what these marvelous tongues do is capture insects that the woodpecker uses to probe under bark and inside holes they bore to find beetles, ants, larvae and other invertebrates.

Some woodpeckers are rare. It's been a few summers since I last saw a red-headed woodpecker, but I remember watching many as a young boy on the farm in Ottertail County. With their bright red heads and mostly black and white pattern, these extraordinary woodpeckers are unmistakable in appearance.

Like many woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers tend to cache food for feeding on at a later time. Lots of grasshoppers and acorns get stuffed into the cracks and knots of trees, fence posts, and even buildings by these ambitious and resourceful birds.

Another woodpecker that's quite uncommon is the black-backed woodpecker. This bird prefers coniferous woodlands and often chooses dead trees for nesting cavities. Black-backed woodpeckers have a peculiar habit of removing the bark surrounding the nest holes they excavate. Sticky resin that formulates around the entrance is thought to discourage would-be predators from trying to enter their cavities.

Other Minnesota woodpeckers include the impossibly large pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and three-toed woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker is a crow-size bird with a total length of about 15 inches. This is the bird responsible for the extremely large and elongated excavations commonly observed in dead and dying trees.

Red-bellied woodpeckers, with their distinct "ladder backs" of alternating rows of black and white plumage, don't have much of red-colored bellies at all. Meanwhile, the aptly named three-toed woodpecker, which, like its cousin the black-backed woodpecker, has just three toes on each foot - it's one of only two North American woodpeckers with yellow on their crowns instead of red (the other yellow crowned woodpecker is also the black-backed woodpecker).

Woodpeckers have numerous physical features that lend themselves well to their interesting lifestyles: stiff tail feathers to help keep them propped upright against tree trunks, special arrangement of toes to assist gripping trees they are foraging on or excavating and distinctive tongues and chisel-like bills to help them garner food quickly and easily.

Most males of each species of woodpeckers have some amount of red on their heads. Furthermore, many woodpeckers produce characteristic tapping sounds with their bills on trees and other sounding objects that identify them to both their conspecifics and the astute birder.

It won't be long and all nine species of woodpeckers will be here all at once. Lucky we are that so many woodpeckers call Minnesota home. Indeed, from pileated woodpeckers to red-bellied woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers to three-toed woodpeckers - they're all here to see, hear and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at