Woodpecker Species in Massachusetts
Seven woodpecker species breed in Massachusetts. They range in size from the tiny downy to the crow-sized pileated.
Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
This is the most common woodpecker in North America—and also the smallest. It inhabits open woods and urban and suburban areas. This bird eats insects and, less frequently, berries and other plant products, as well as sunflower seeds at bird feeders. It has a black and white checkered pattern, a short beak, and black markings on its outer tail feathers. Its calls include a high peep and a loud rattle; as in many woodpeckers, it drums on trees rather than singing a song.
Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
The hairy woodpecker prefers mature forests, and is less likely to be seen in built-up areas than the downy. It consumes mostly insects with some plant material. This bird and the downy look alike, but the hairy’s beak is larger than the downy’s, and it has all-white outer tail feathers. It makes piercing and rattling calls and drums rapidly on trees.
Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Unlike our other woodpeckers, this species has gray-brown plumage, and its wings flash yellow when it flies. It inhabits woodlands, wetlands, and built-up areas. It eats insects and other invertebrates, as well as seeds and berries. This bird makes piercing single and repetitive calls and drums on trees.
Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
This bird has only become common in Massachusetts during the past two decades. Despite the name, the most visible area of red on this bird can be found on its head and nape. It is approximately the size of a hairy woodpecker and has beige underparts and a black and white barred back. This bird inhabits many types of forests and will visit feeders. Listen for a variety of sounds, from trills to loud chuckles to a steady drumming.
Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
This species breeds only erratically in Massachusetts. The adult has a completely red head, a black back, and a solid white patch on its wings, and the immature has a brown head. This bird has unusual feeding habits for a woodpecker; it stores food in tree crevices, often covering it with bark, and it catches insects in the air. You may hear it drumming relatively slowly on trees.
Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
The energetic, crow-sized pileated woodpecker is always a remarkable sight. It has a bright red crest and a black body with white patches on its wings. Look for the large rectangular holes that it excavates in trees to find carpenter ants, its preferred food. It makes loud notes and has a repetitive call like a flicker’s, but slower. Listen for a powerful drumming that is slow at first, then speeds up, and then slows again.
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
This small woodpecker has a complex black and white pattern, a red forehead (and a red throat in males), and a yellow blush underneath that is often not immediately obvious. It drills rows of small holes around a tree’s trunk from which it sips sap. Listen for repetitive squeaking calls as well as erratic drumming, almost like a person typing on a typewriter. While it only breeds in the western part of Massachusetts, it can be seen throughout the state during migration and occasionally in winter.