Rat-a-Tat-Tat! Woodpeckers In The Garden

“Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head and keeps pecking away until he finishes the job he starts.”

   –Coleman Cox

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Tree trunk

Red-bellied Woodpecker

After seeing some lovely photos of downy woodpeckers at one of my favorite blogs (link below), I decided it would be fun to post about the 8 woodpeckers resident to central Florida, several of which are common garden visitors.

 The most common woodpecker in Florida is probably the red-bellied woodpecker (pictured above).  The red-bellied part of its name refers to the wash of red over tan that the males acquire during breeding season.  Red-bellies belong to a group of woodpeckers called “ladder-backed woodpeckers.”  If you notice the black and white horizontal bars on this bird’s back, you can imagine why.  One of the things I like most about this woodpecker is that it visits feeders regularly, supplementing its insect diet with lots of seed, especially sunflower and safflower.  The bird shown is a male.  Females have red on the backs of their heads, too, but it does not go forward all the way to the beak, like this bird’s does.  Red-bellied woodpeckers are medium sized birds, about the size of a stout robin.

Downy woodpecker on suet feeder

Downy Woodpecker

The smallest woodpecker in Florida is also a very common bird, though often hard to spot.  The tiny downy woodpecker is not much larger than your average sparrow.  It can be told from its very similar cousin, the hairy woodpecker, by the much shorter bill, and slightly smaller size, overall.  As you can see, downies will come to suet feeders, but in my experience, they seldom come to a seed feeder.  I frequently see downies chasing each other round and round a tree trunk, and their high pitched calls are very recognizable.  They are really cute little birds, and fun to watch in the garden.

Pileated Woodpecker on tree trunk

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in Florida (maybe in the United States), being about the size of a crow.  Pileated means “crested,” and you can see from this picture that they are well named.  The female has less red on her crest, and her “moustache” is black, so you can tell the bird pictured above is a male.  If you are old enough to remember Woody Woodpecker cartoons, you might be interested to know that Woody’s laugh was patterned after the call of the pileated woodpecker.  They are LOUD and really do cackle.  I see pileateds in my yard several times a week, and hear them even more often.  They are beautiful birds, especially in flight.

Northern Flicker Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Another common woodpecker around these parts is the Northern Flicker.  The flicker is the only woodpecker in Florida that is primarily brown in color.  The spotted breast is very distinctive, as is the “V” shaped red mark on the nape of its neck.  This is a male flicker above.  The females have a red moustache, oddly enough.  It’s usually the other way around.  The flicker gets his name from his slow “wicka-wicka-wicka” call, and is the only woodpecker who is seen on the ground as often as on a tree.  They have an unusual habit of taking dust baths in anthills, and then picking up a large ant in the beak and rubbing it all over their feathers.  This is known as…ready?…anting!  The theory is they are spreading the formic acid the ant gives off, though I’m not quite sure to what purpose.  They are between the red-bellied and the pileated woodpeckers in size.

Red-headed woodpecker on branch

Red-headed Woodpecker

Surely the most beautiful of all the woodpeckers is the strikingly marked red-headed woodpecker.  I see fewer and fewer of them every year, and they are not common in most gardens.  They are the only woodpecker whose diet consists of large quantities of “mast” in addition to insects.  Mast is the term for acorns, so unless you have a lot of large oaks in your yard, you probably won’t have red-headed woodpeckers visiting you.  And these days, I see them only in more rural oak groves, for some reason.  They are roughly the size of  the red-bellied woodpecker, and it’s always a pleasure to catch sight of that beautiful black and white plumage darting through the trees.  Notice that the entire head and face of the bird is red, rather than just the crown of the head.  This is the only woodpecker in Florida patterned like that. 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

No, it’s not just a slangy insult tossed around in old western movies.  There really is a bird named that, and the name is quite appropriate.  This smallish woodpecker has a wash of yellow over his belly, especially in breeding season, and he does “suck sap!”  Okay, he doesn’t suck it.  But the holes he drills in trees produce running sap that he actually eats.  Plus the sap attracts insects for an added bonus.  In central Florida, sapsuckers are winter visitors, and I’m expecting mine to show up in the next few weeks.

Sapsuckers leave perfect “bracelets” of holes girding tree trunks in neat rings.  If you see these types of woodpecker holes on your trees, you know for sure you have had sapsuckers visiting your yard.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker rings around tree trunk

Sapsucker Damage

The general school of thought is that unless the sapsuckers are staying in your yard all year long, their damage to trunks is merely superficial.  Honestly, I think it’s kind of cool, and I smile when I see these “bracelets” on my trees.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

And finally, the rarest woodpecker in Florida.  The red-cockaded woodpecker is on the Endangered Species list.  They are very habitat specific, and logging and other stresses on their preferred habitat has been a factor in their decline.  Unless you are willing to hike far into the woods to a known red-cockaded nest, and sit down and wait for what could be hours for an extremely brief sighting of one swooping in from nowhere and disappearing into the tree cavity, your chances of seeing one are kind of slim.  This is a very handsome bird, with wide white cheek patches and a small red patch on top of its head that is often hidden under a black cap.  Its relationship to the trees is prefers is quite unusual, and if you are interested in such things, you might google it for a bit more information.

Hope you have enjoyed seeing these Florida woodpeckers, and maybe you’ll notice a few of them in your own yard.  Don’t forget to click on the images to zoom in, and if you would like to hear their calls, I’ve listed them below.  Also, drop by Backyard Biology to see some fantastic photos of nature and wildlife, and to read some pretty interesting facts, too.  It’s a fun blog!

Backyard Biology

Woodpecker calls and drumming sounds.  (Note, some of these links have more than one clickable recording).

Red-bellied Woodpecker Call

Downy Woodpecker Call

Pileated Woodpecker Call

Northern Flicker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

All images found online.

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2 thoughts on “Rat-a-Tat-Tat! Woodpeckers In The Garden

  1. I love to hear the sounds of the woodpeckers – we have plenty of rings around our one birch tree from this past summer, although I heard the little sapsucker, I never saw him! Thanks for educating me on the woodpecker, I never knew there were a wide variety. Blessings – Patty

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  2. Hi, Patty! You are welcome, but there are many more varieties than just the ones we have in Florida. Lots more live out west, for one thing. I’m not at all familiar with those, though I did see an acorn woodpecker when visiting my daughter in San Diego. I think they are an absolutely fascinating species, and a good example of nature’s adaptation at work. Their heads are different from “regular” birds, for one thing, so they don’t give themselves brain damage by banging them into tree trunks all day long.

    Good to see you visiting this morning!

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