Woodpeckers are an amazingly adapted family of birds. Unlike other birds, woodpeckers do not sing songs, but communicate by drumming their beak on trees (or other resonate objects like your gutters) to delineate territory or attract a mate. To help them excavate a nest cavity or find insects in tree bark, woodpeckers are equipped with some heavy duty features. Woodpeckers are zygodactyl, which means two toes face forward and two backward – extremely helpful when vertically scaling tree bark. Their stiff tail feathers help brace their body when pecking. Woodpeckers have a special barbed tongue that is held in a hyoid apparatus – the tongue curls around their skull and, when ready, muscle and cartilage helps their tongue extend far past their bill. Built for pecking, they can withstand much greater decelerations of gravitational force (g) than human brains due to their smaller brain size, the orientation of their brain, and the short duration of impact when pecking. Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calculated that woodpeckers can withstand 600 – 1,500g of deceleration, whereas humans can only safely withstand 100g of deceleration. Learn about the different species of Long Island’s (LI) woodpeckers below!
The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is the smallest woodpecker on LI at a petite 6 inches in length and may be a familiar visitor to your bird feeder. Downy woodpeckers have black and white plumage; adult males can be distinguished from females by the red patch on the back of their head. This species eats mostly insects that can be found under tree bark, but they also eat tent caterpillars and beetles. They will supplement their diet with plant materials like berries, acorns and grains.
The larger Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) is the doppelganger of the downy woodpecker. Both species look almost identical at first glance, but you can use the following tips to tell them apart. The hairy woodpecker is larger, at about 9 inches in length, with a bill that is the length of its head, and also proportionally larger than the downy woodpeckers bill. Also take a look at the outer tail feather – on a hairy, they will be pure white while the outer tail feathers of a downy will be white with black spots.
Contrary to its name, the Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) only has a dusting of red on its otherwise white underside. This species is about the same size as the hairy woodpecker, with black and white barring across its back and a red cap (partially red in females). Although it is a common woodpecker on LI now, it was very rare in this region only 70 years ago. Since that time, this species has drastically expanded its range from southern states, becoming a year-round resident of LI. On your next hike, listen for the shrill “kwirr” or “churr” that denotes a red-bellied woodpecker.
The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a myriad of colors and patterns, with a brown barred back, spotted belly, black crescent bib, and yellow wing lining. One of the telltale signs for spotting a Northern flicker is to look for the white rump above the tail feathers in characteristic swooping flight. Flickers can be seen in open woodlands and suburban areas like backyards, where they spend much of their time on the ground eating insects, especially ants and beetles that are easy to find with their slightly curved bill. Their tongue can protrude another two inches from their bill to catch prey. Since they are so reliant on their diet of ants, this species migrates southward from LI in the winter and returns in the spring and summer.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) visit LI on their migration to and from their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Even if you don’t spot one of these red crowned beauties, you’ll find evidence of their bark foraging throughout the forest where they leave shallow horizontally organized holes in bark. This species makes sapwells to harvest the sweet sap, insects, and sometimes the cambium of trees like birch, maple, and hickory. Other animals and bird species, even ruby-throated hummingbirds, will utilize the yellow-bellied sapwells for nutrients. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have left some impressive sapwells at the Refuge – look for them on your next hike! Two species of woodpecker are rare to see on LI. The Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is an uncommon and rare sight on LI. Aptly named; both male and female Red-headed woodpeckers have a bright red head, neck and throat, white belly, and blueish-black back. It is one of only four woodpecker species that stores food, especially acorns, in tree bark. The largest woodpecker in North America, the Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)lives in regions around LI – upstate NY, NJ, CT, but has likely never been a breeding bird here. Occasionally, individuals have been spotted in Nassau and western Suffolk, but are extremely rare to see. Nonetheless, LI’s woodpeckers, and woodpeckers around the world are considered “keystone species” due to their amazing modifications they make to woodland habitats. Countless other native species utilize their chiseled cavities and sapwells.
By Cara Fernandes