Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
Woodpeckers are common in Pennsylvania. The forests, field, and farmlands of the northeast are ideal habitat for several species. In fact, if you put up a bird feeder you will probably see several types of woodpeckers come to visit your yard. Others are more elusive, and to spot them you might have to put in a little work.
The family Picidae comprises woodpeckers and their close relatives. Picidae falls under the order Piciformes. This makes them different from songbirds, which are in the order Passeriformes.
Woodpeckers are enjoyable to watch, but they provide other benefits for property owners. They keep local insect populations under control, which gardeners will appreciate, and they create nesting cavities other bird species may use in the future.
However, sometimes homeowners are not thrilled when these birds come around. Woodpeckers may drum on houses and occasionally even damage wooden structures.
Whether you are trying to identify a woodpecker you are happy to see on your property or researching the name of that crazy bird banging on your house, this article can help.
Here are seven woodpeckers commonly spotted in Pennsylvania and the northeast.
1. Red-bellied Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes carolinus
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is bold and boisterous, and it doesn’t take long until you learn to recognize its call. You’ll hear them when they are around, and you can easily identify this medium-sized woodpecker by its black-and-white barred back and wings. Males have bright-red caps while females have a splash of red on their heads to go along with red napes of their necks.
Red-bellied Woodpecker habitat extends north into southern New England, south to Florida, and west into the central United States. They are a common species that remain in their territory year-round.
In the wild, Red-bellied Woodpeckers primarily eat insects, but they may take advantage of nuts, seeds fruit, and even small vertebrates. They are regulars at backyard bird feeders where they enjoy nuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and suet.
2. Downy Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryobates pubescens
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America at only five to seven inches in length. It’s attractive black-and-white plumage and plucky disposition make it a welcome visitor to bird feeders and backyards. You can tell the males from the females by the bright red patches on the backs of their heads.
Downy Woodpeckers are common throughout most of the United States and Canada, where they are year-round residents in forests. However, there are slight regional differences in their appearance. Downys in the west are darker, where those in the east have brighter plumage.
Like most woodpeckers, they primarily dine on insects along with a few seeds, fruits, and nuts. In your backyard, this little bird will love a suet cake or two. They will also happily come to your feeder for sunflower seeds, nuts, and dried fruit.
3. Hairy Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryobates villosus
At first glance, the Hairy Woodpecker looks almost identical to the Downy Woodpecker. The best way to tell Hairy Woodpeckers from Downys is by size. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger, almost as big as Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
Downy Woodpeckers also have shorter bills relative to their little bodies, where Hairy Woodpeckers have longer, pointier bills.
They are non-migratory birds. Their range extends from northeast Canada to Alaska, west to California, and south as far as Central America.
Hairy Woodpeckers eat primarily insects with a preference for beetles and their larvae. However, they will visit your feeder on occasion, though much less often than their smaller cousin. You can attract them with suet, sunflower seeds, nuts, and dried fruit.
4. Pileated Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryocopus pileatus
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in North America, second only to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which is likely extinct. It is not as easy to spot as the other birds mentioned in this article so far, but if you keep an eye out, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of one. These crow-sized birds have black-and-white bodies with white stripes on their faces and bright red crests.
The Pileated Woodpecker probably won’t come to your bird feeder, though if you feed suet you may have a little luck. They’ll mostly forage in trees and on fallen logs. Carpenter ants are their main food preference, though they will also take other insects such as termites, other ant species, beetles, and larvae. Like most woodpeckers, they supplement their diets with fruit, nuts, and seeds.
If you want to attract this magnificent bird, you can try suet or sunflower seeds. However, you will probably have better luck searching for them in the wild.
5. Red-headed Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
This attractive bird is about the size of the Hairy Woodpecker, with a bright-red head and black-and-white plumage. It is one of the rarer sightings among Pennsylvania woodpeckers. While some birds may remain in the state year-round, birds farther north will migrate south for the winter months.
These woodpeckers are flycatchers that prey on insects such as midges, beetles, honeybees, and grasshoppers. They prefer open habitats, where they can spot flying insects and intercept them in mid-air.
Despite this impressive skill set, they depend on fruit, nuts, and seeds for most of their diet. They are one of a handful of North American woodpeckers known to cache their food.
Sadly, Red-headed Woodpecker populations are on the decline, possibly because of the clearing of old-growth forests throughout their territory. They rely on dead trees for nesting, and nut-producing trees for food.
6. Northern Flicker
Scientific Name: Colaptes auratus
The Northern Flicker is a bit of an oddball in the woodpecker family. Instead of foraging in trees, more often you’ll spot them digging up insects on the ground. They are one of my favorite birds, and I always love to see them on the lawn.
These attractive birds have brownish-gray plumage with black bars on their backs and spots on their bellies, along with a black bib. There are regional differences in their appearance. Yellow-shafted Flickers are common in Pennsylvania and the northeast, and Red-shafted in the western parts of their range. The difference in color refers to their flight and tail feathers.
Northern Flicker range extends throughout most of the United States and Canada. In northern climes, they migrate south for the winter. It is unlikely you will see them at your backyard feeder, but watch for them foraging in lawns and fields.
7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus varius
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers appear in the very southeastern parts of Pennsylvania year-round. For those of us in the northeast, we’re lucky to see them in the summer months during their breeding season. They have black-and-white plumage with a barred pattern on their back and bellies. Males have a red cap and throat.
As you probably guessed, these birds feed by drilling holes in trees to get to the sap. While sap is their principal source of sustenance, they’ll also take insects they find in the bark of trees and the occasional fruit.
If you have a lot of maples, birch, hickory, or other sap-producing trees on your property you may see them around quite often. They may come to your suet feeder but aren’t likely to show much interest in your seed feeder. I see them at my birdbath occasionally.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are woodpeckers protected in Pennsylvania?
Yes. Woodpeckers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. That means it is illegal to kill them or capture them. Under certain circumstances, U.S. Fish and Wildlife can issue a permit that allows exceptions.
Which woodpeckers have red heads?
Adult Red-headed Woodpeckers have bright-red heads. However, there are several other woodpecker species with red plumage on their heads or napes. These include:
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Downy Woodpecker
- Pileated Woodpecker
Do woodpeckers sing?
Woodpeckers don’t sing like songbirds, but some species do vocalize quite a bit. They also drum on trees and other objects to communicate.
What do woodpeckers eat?
Most woodpeckers eat insects such as grubs, ants, caterpillars, aphids, and beetles. They sometimes find them by drilling into trees, but they will take them wherever they can get them. They will also eat seeds, fruit, and nuts. Some species, like the Yellow-bellied Sap Sucker, consume tree sap.
Where do woodpeckers live?
Woodpeckers live in forests, but some species such as the Downy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker also do well in areas with human habitation, as long as they can find nesting spots. Woodpeckers nest in tree cavities, either those they excavate themselves or old cavities that already exist.
Do woodpeckers kill trees?
Woodpeckers on their own rarely cause serious damage to healthy trees. Problems occur when trees are already damaged or infested with insects.
This is evident in the damage to ash trees currently occurring in the northeast due to the emerald ash borer. These invasive insects infest native ash trees and kill them within a few years. Woodpeckers come in and feed on the insects, causing further damage.
While this is devastating to the tree itself, the reduction of ash borer populations by woodpeckers may help save other trees.
Why is there a woodpecker pecking my house?
There are a few reasons they might do this.
- Pecking and hammering is a way for woodpeckers to communicate. This is similar to how songbirds sing to claim territory and announce their presence.
- They may be looking for food. Watch for signs of insect infestation in your home.
- They may be looking for a nesting spot. Obviously this is a behavior you’ll want to deter.
How can you get rid of woodpeckers?
It is illegal to harm a woodpecker. Some homeowners deter them by hanging shiny objects and wind chimes in the area where the woodpecker is active. You’ll also want to eliminate any insect infestations that’s may bring woodpeckers around.
How to Attract Woodpeckers
A bird feeder stocked with sunflower seeds, nuts, and dried fruit will attract many of the woodpeckers mentioned in this article. Woodpeckers love suet cakes too. They’ll appreciate it if you put up a special suet feeder as will other birds such as nuthatches.
Make sure the feeders have perches that woodpeckers can manage. Small species like the Downy Woodpecker with approach almost any feeder, but larger ones like the Red-bellied Woodpecker struggle with small feeders.
That’s one reason I like to have several types of feeders in my yard. Another reason is that some woodpeckers can be a little ornery. Red-bellied Woodpeckers in particular don’t like to share the feeder with other birds.
If you add a water feature such as a birdbath you may attract woodpeckers that aren’t interested in your feeders. If you want to go the extra mile, you can put up nesting boxes and plant tall trees where they can forage. You might consider leaving dead trees standing on your property, but only if it is safe to do so, of course.
Some of my favorite birds that visit my property are the woodpeckers. They are fun to watch and they are an important part of the local ecosystem. If you live in Pennsylvania or the northeast, I hope you get the chance to enjoy these woodpeckers too.
References and Further Reading
As always, the following resources were indispensable in researching this article:
Ankita B on July 25, 2020:
Interesting and informative article