Seven species of woodpeckers make their home in Minnesota all year round. Only two species, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and northern flicker, migrate south each fall. So in all, nine different woodpeckers can be observed in the North Star State.

One of the most familiar and common woodpeckers is the downy woodpecker. “Downies," which look like their larger cousin the hairy woodpecker, occupy a somewhat different niche than its bigger relative. They are the smallest North American woodpecker that’s only slightly larger than a house sparrow.

The bills of downy woodpeckers are shorter and used differently for different forage items than that of the longer bills of hairy woodpeckers. This anatomical difference is one of the reasons the two look-alike species are able to coexist, in that they are able to access food that the other either cannot or has difficulty obtaining.

Some woodpeckers, like the northern flicker, don’t spend their winters in northern Minnesota. Though quite abundant during the spring and fall migrations, it’s likely that a primary reason these birds migrate to warmer climates is because of their preferred food: carpenter ants. It’s common to observe these interesting woodpeckers hunting for ants on the ground and hopping about like robins.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker, quite numerous locally in woodlands and orchards throughout the state, are the birds responsible for the puzzling rows of small holes that encircle the trunks of birch and fruit trees, sometimes even killing trees. Sapsuckers do this to exploit and eat the sap, as well as eating insects that are attracted to the oozing sap. They’ll also attack pine and spruce trees, as well lilac, willow and alder shrubs.

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Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been found drilling sap wells in more than 1,000 species of trees and woody plants, though they have a strong preference for birches and maples, according to All About Birds. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been found drilling sap wells in more than 1,000 species of trees and woody plants, though they have a strong preference for birches and maples, according to All About Birds. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Some woodpeckers are rare, such as the red-headed woodpecker. I’ve observed only a few of this beautiful species in my life. What with their bright red heads and mostly black and white pattern, these extraordinary woodpeckers are unmistakable from any other bird. Like many woodpeckers, they tend to cache food. Lots of grasshoppers and acorns get stuffed into the cracks and knots of trees, fence posts, and even buildings, by these resourceful birds.

Another uncommon woodpecker is the black-backed woodpecker. This bird prefers coniferous woodlands and often chooses dead pine trees for their nesting cavity. Black-backed woodpeckers have a peculiar habit of removing the bark surrounding the hole they excavate. Sticky resin that formulates around the entrance is thought to discourage some predators.

And yet another woodpecker -- one that has, in recent years, begun nesting and wintering near my rural home -- is the red-bellied woodpecker. This species of “ladder back,” named for the horizontal pattern of black and white plumage, has become more common throughout the northern part of their range. The barbed tongue of red-bellied woodpeckers can extend by as much as two inches past the tip of their beak!

Then there’s the inspiration for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, our own pileated woodpecker. This crow-size woodpecker can be found throughout Minnesota anywhere mature trees exist. Their loud calls and deep, elongated excavations into dead and dying trees are distinguishing features of this amazing species of bird.

Woodpeckers have numerous physical features that evolved to help them survive: stiff tail feathers to keep them propped upright against tree trunks, special arrangement of toes to assist gripping trees, and unique tongues and chisel-like bills to help them attain food. Most males of each species have red on their heads, too. Furthermore, many male woodpeckers produce distinctive, territorial tapping sounds with their bills on trees and other objects that are recognizable to other males (and to birders!).

We are lucky that woodpeckers are all about us to watch and appreciate. From the largest North American woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker, down to the smallest of them all, the downy woodpecker, woodpeckers are among the most interesting birds anywhere as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.