With over 450 species of birds, the Great Lake state of Michigan has a truly diverse avian community. With 2 peninsulas containing lakes as well as flatland and hilly regions, a wide variety of environments are present that make this state such an attractive home for birds. Today we are going to talk about the types of Woodpeckers that you can find in Michigan and there are quite a lot of them. We’ll tell you what they look like, what they like to eat, and some interesting facts about these fine feathered wood-drummers so that you can enjoy a better understanding of these amazing birds.
Types of Woodpeckers in Michigan
Without including Sapsuckers and Flickers there are 16 species of Woodpeckers found throughout North America and Michigan is a permanent or part-time home for 9 of them. That’s pretty impressive and definitely a treat for Michigan birders.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the individual species that call Michigan their full or part-time home. We’ll let you know where they like to hide, what they like to eat, and give you a little bit of useful trivia about these wood-burrowing wonders.
Make sure you keep reading for more detail on each species!
American Three-toed Woodpecker – Picoides dorsalis
American Three-toed Woodpecker – Picoides dorsalis
Coloration and Markings: The American Three-toed Woodpecker has a wide, white stripe going down it’s back, with medium-length black wings which sport white spots and a medium-length black tail which is white on the underside. The belly and breast of this bird are white, with a flanking of black barring that is similar to zebra-stripes and facially, this bird has a white face with a black mustache-line, a black ‘bandit’ mask that goes to the back of the head, and a black crown. This bird has a medium-length black bill and if you see a yellow-patch on the forehead, then you are looking at a male.
Size: These birds measure in at 8.3 to 9.1 inches in length and have wingspance of 14.6 to 15.3 inches wide.
Habitat: These Woodpeckers love to spend time in wooded areas with burnt or dead trees. They are especially fond of coniferous forests as well.
Diet: While they mainly dine on the larvae of wood-boring beetles, these Woodpeckers also eat caterpillars and other insects that they can catch.
More about the American Three-toed Woodpecker
Often spotted a little bit North of Michigan, these birds do visit Michigan proper and they have a higher tolerance for cold that most woodpeckers. With a lifespan of about 12 years, American Three-toed Woodpeckers are uncommon but they are out there just waiting for a lucky birder to spot them. Their diet of Spruce beetle larva is considered a boon for the environment, as these beetles can do a lot of damage unchecked.
When you first spot one, you might think that you are looking at a plastic bird that someone has placed in a tree to attract other birds, this is because the American Three-toed Woodpecker is extremely adept at remaining completely still. Another odd characteristic is that you won’t hear them rat-a-tat-tapping at trees, as these Woodpeckers don’t bore into the wood. Rather, the Three-toed will grab at pieces of bark, ripping off strips to check for delicious beetle larvae.
This is a confident species that doesn’t really shy away from humans and in answer to the question you are probably thinking about, yes, they do have 3 toes instead of 4 like most other Woodpeckers!
Black-backed Woodpecker – Picoides arcticus
Coloration and Markings: The Black-backed Woodpecker does indeed have a black back, with stripe-like barring just below the shoulder on the outer-edge of it’s medium-length, broad wings and this bird has a medium-length black tail which is white on the underside. The belly and breast of this bird are white, with a flanking of stripe-like barring and a somewhat ashy appearance to the white. Facially, the lower half of the bird’s face is white, barring a black mustache line, while the upper half of the face is completely black. This bird has a long black bill and males will display a yellow forehead-cap.
Size: These birds measure in at approximately 9.1 inches from tip to tail with a wingspan of 15.8 to 16.5 inches wide.
Habitat: These Woodpeckers are found in Montane and Boreal forests, especially in areas where there has been a fire in the last few years. Look for them near dead trees and even wooded bogs, where they like to forage for tasty beetles.
Diet: These birds eat the larvae of both long-horned wood-borer and jewel beetles.
More about the Black-backed Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpeckers look quite similar to the American Three-toed variety, even having only 3 toes on each foot. They have a shorter lifespan of 8 years and are much more aggressive than American Three-toed Woodpeckers, sometimes driving that species out of their own nests. This can be a problem as they both like to live in similar habitats.
You can find them in the upper peninsula of Michigan and they are year-round birds, so be sure to keep an eye out if you are travelling up north. They are especially fond of locating patches of forests after a fire, where they can gorge on the resulting insect infestations for a very long time, generally 5 to 8 years. Due to the inky-black hues of the bird, they blend in quite well with the burnt scenery and this has led scientists to speculate that they have been specialized specifically for feeding in burnt forests – that their plumage is a deliberate evolutionary product.
When it comes to nests, interestingly enough the Black-backed Woodpecker does NOT reuse nests, preferring to bore a new nest each time. Over time this leads to a number of abandoned nest-cavities which other birds are keen to take advantage of. Owls, Bluebirds, Chickadees, and other birds that cannot bore their own nest are happy to take a place in this Woodpecker’s former residences so it works out well for everyone.
Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
Coloration and Markings: Downy Woodpeckers have a broad, white stripe going down their backs, with medium-length black wings which have a checkerboard pattern of white spots starting just below the shoulder which gives the appearance of zebra stripes. They have short, black tails which are white underneath and the belly and breast of this bird are a snowy white. Facially, these birds have white faces, with a black mustache line, a black ‘bandit’ mask that goes all the way to the back of the head, and a black crown, which terminates as a red spot on the males but stays completely back for females. These birds have straight, medium-length black bills.
Size: These birds measure in at 5.5 – 6.7 inches in length and have wingspans of 9.8 to 11.8 inches wide.
Habitat: These Woodpeckers love open wooded areas, especially deciduous, with larges areas of scrub and brush to forage in.
Diet: These birds like to eat beetle larvae, caterpillars, and ants that they catch climbing or hiding in the bark of the trees.
More about the Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpeckers have a hearty lifespan of approximately 12 years, pretty impressive for the smallest North American Woodpecker. They are found all over Michigan and this hardy little birds have no problem with the winter. They also have a sweet tooth, and it’s not uncommon to catch a Downy taking a sip of sugar water from your Hummingbird feeder, though they also love to eat nuts, seeds, and even grape jelly from standard backyard feeders which they visit often and without hesitation.
Interestingly enough, when it comes to foraging, the male and the female will split up and forage different types of areas. Males, for example, like to forage on weed stems and small branches, while females tend to search larger branches and the trunks of trees. Scientists had their curiosity piqued by this, so they tried separating some test couples, and without the male present the female started checking smaller branches as well. Apparently, they divide the work! It’s certainly more efficient and quite curious behavior.
Downies are also able to forage in areas that larger Woodpeckers cannot, catching insects living on or even inside the stems of weeds, though if they see your feeder first then you will likely have a regular visitor, especially in the wintertime.
Hairy Woodpecker – Dryobates villosus
Coloration and Markings: The larger twin of the Downy, Hairy Woodpeckers have a broad, white stripe down their backs, with black wings which bear the same zebra-stripe patterning just below the shoulders at the outer edge of the wing. They have slightly larger, medium-length tails and the belly and breast of this bird are snowy white. Facially, these birds have white faces, with a black mustache line, ‘bandit’ mask, and a black cap which terminates in a red dot if you are looking at a male. They have stout, straight, and medium-length black bills.
Size: These birds measure in at 7.1 – 10.2 inches in length and have wingspans of 13 to 16.1 inches in width.
Habitat: These Woodpeckers love open woods, especially those of Oak and Pine. You can sometimes spot them in the suburbs as well and even in cemeteries, though the best place to look for them is areas of woodlands that have recently experienced a fire.
Diet: These birds like to dine on wood-boring and bark beetles, as well as ant and moth pupae which they pluck straight out of their cocoons.
More about the Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpeckers have a robust lifespan of approximately 15 years. As mentioned, they have almost identical markings to Downy Woodpeckers, so if you see what looks like a large Downy then you are probably looking at a Hairy Woodpecker. They are much more aggressive in their foraging than Downies, however, and aside from their standard pecking for boring deeply into a tree they are often seen ripping strips of bark off of trees to get to the delicious insects hiding inside.
You can find these birds all over Michigan and they are year-round residents, as the cold doesn’t bother them at all. They like to nest in dead trees and they have an interesting habit of following Pileated Woodpeckers, often showing up when they hear a Pileated boring into a nearby tree. When the Pileated Woodpecker leaves, the opportunistic Hairy Woodpecker will check the freshly excavated area in order to partake of any insects that the other bird might have missed.
Like the Downy, these birds have a sweet tooth, and they’ve been known to watch Sapsuckers when they excavate an area, so that when they leave the Hairy Woodpecker can get a taste of any sweet tree-sap that has been left behind.
Lewis’s Woodpecker – Melanerpes lewis
Coloration and Markings: Lewis’s Woodpecker has a black and green back, with long black and green wings and a long black and green tail. The belly and breast of this bird are a mix of white and pink and this bird has a grayish-white collar, while facially the front of this bird’s face is a lovely dark red, with the back of the head and the crown being black. These birds have long, straight black bills that are slightly thinner than most Woodpeckers, making them look quite sharp and pointy.
Size: These birds measure in at 10.2 – 11 inches in length and have wingspans approximately 19.3 to 20.5 inches wide.
Habitat: You can find Lewis’s Woodpecker in a wide variety of locations, such as burnt-out forests, open pine forests, and mixed forests, especially if there is a stream nearby.
Diet: These Woodpeckers love to eat insects, fruit, and nuts, and they have been known to store food for the winter, lodging in in cracks and crevices of Cottonwood trees as a safeguard when the foraging pickings are slim.
More about Lewis’s Woodpecker
Lewis’s Woodpecker has a lifespan ranging between 4 and 11 years and they catch their insects a little differently than other Woodpeckers. Rather than standing on a branch and pecking them out, these birds catch the majority of insects that they consume in the air like a Flycatcher. They can sometimes be spotted in Michigan in late spring or early summer an the few times that they have been spotted has been around the Detroit area.
They also fly differently from most Woodpeckers, with heavy, slow flapping, reminiscent of a Crow in flight. These birds very seldom bore into wood for insects, preferring instead to wait on a branch until they spot a juicy morsel in flight, leaving the brand to intercept them mid-air. If you are lucky enough to spot one feeding, with their curious flight and interception tactics you are definitely in for a treat. These birds are extremely fond of nuts and will come to a feeder for them, though in the wild you can look for them in areas where there are a lot of acorns present.
Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus
Coloration and Markings: Northern Flickers have exquisite plumage. They have brownish-gray backs with long wings which are brownish gray with delightful black spots, crescents, and bars, and which bear a vibrant yellow or rich red underneath. They have long, flared tails which are brownish-gray on top and black-tipped beneath, with either red or yellow taking up the majority of the undersides. The belly and breast of this bird are a tan color with black spots, crescents, and bars and at the apex of the breast you’ll see a black crescent mark. These birds have long, grayish-brown necks and facially, they are the same color with a wide, red line going across the face and terminating just past the cheek and the top of their heads are a soft brown color. These birds have long, gray, and slightly curved bills.
Size: Flickers measure in at 11 – 12.2 inches in length and have wingspans of 16.5 to 20.1 inches wide.
Habitat: These Woodpeckers love open wooded areas, though you can also find them in parks and backyards with well-stocked feeders.
Diet: Flickers love fruits, seeds, and insects, and are known to burrow into ant mounds with their long bills to snatch them out from underground.
More about the Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers may be found year-round all over Michigan and have a lifespan of approximately 9 years. These beautiful Woodpeckers are a prized sighting, due to their amazing plumage, but don’t look for them in the trees – these birds spend most of their foraging time on the ground. They do peck at trees like other Woodpeckers, but it is believed that this is more for communication with other Flickers than foraging.
Due to their ground-foraging bent, these birds are poor excavators, and as such they tend to take over cavities that either occur naturally or that have been hollowed-out by other birds. Aside from communication, Flickers will also peck objects to create sound to drive other birds away, sometimes even pecking metal to great effect, and one story even tells about a Flicker drumming on an old tractor and the sound could be heard half a mile away!
Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus pileatus
Coloration and Markings: Pileated Woodpeckers have black backs, as well as long, black wings which are white for ¾ of the underside of the wings in a crescent shape. They have long, black tails and their belly and breast is a sooty black color. They have long, black necks which have a wide white line running up each side and facially, these birds have a white face, with a red stripe running from the bill back to the cheek, as well as a black mask which curves up slightly after it passes the eyes and stunning red crest that looks like a tiny mohawk. These birds have long, straight black bills.
Size: These are Crow-sized Woodpeckers, measuring in at 15.8 – 19.3 inches from tip to tail and with wingspans of 26 to 29.5 inches wide.
Habitat: These are birds of the deep woods and they prefer deciduous, evergreen, or mixed woodlands, with large, dead or downed trees present. They occasionally range out into cities, where they may be spotted in backyards with well-stocked feeders.
Diet: These birds love fruits, nuts, and berries, and they are also fond of beetle larvae and Carpenter ants.
More about the Pileated Woodpecker
Found all over Michigan (though noticeably less common in the Southeast), the Pileated Woodpecker is a large Woodpecker with a lifespan of approximately 13 years. When we say it’s large, we are not kidding, as the Pileated is the largest North American species of Woodpecker. They drill rather distinctive rectangular holes in dead trees when they forage and their drumming is distinctive as well – it is a very slow and rolling sound.
These large birds tend to bore very large nesting holes, and it’s notable that these homes are quite important to other birds. Ducks, Swifts, Owls, Pine Martins, and even bats make use of them once the Pileated Woodpecker has abandoned them. They also excavate trees thoroughly enough that it attracts other birds, hoping to make a snack of any insects that the Pileated Woodpecker might have left behind.
Red-bellied Woodpecker – Melanerpes carolinus
Coloration and Markings: Red-bellied Woodpeckers look quite exotic, with zebra-like stripes on their backs, their medium-length wings, and their medium-length tails which are white on the undersides. They have a white belly and breast, with a distinctive red spot on the belly and light splashes of red across the breast. Facially, they have white faces with a splash of light red color at the cheeks and a a red crown that carries down to the nape of the neck. These birds have long, stout, and straight black bills.
Size: These birds measure in at approximately 9.4 inches from tip to tail and they have wingspans that are 13 to 16.5 inches wide.
Habitat: These birds love the woods, with a preference for stands of hickory, oak, and pine trees. They do visit backyards as well and are commonly spotted at feeders.
Diet: These Woodpeckers eat a variety of things, including berries, nuts, seeds, and small insects like grasshoppers, ants, beetle larvae, and caterpillars.
More about the Red-bellied Woodpecker
The Red-bellied Woodpecker has a lifespan of approximately 12 years and is most commonly spotted in Michigan in the southern half of the lower peninsula. Sightings are increasing in frequency in the North as well, however, so if you live in Northern Michigan you might still get a Red-bellied visitor to your feeder. Like many Woodpeckers, they do have a sweet tooth, and you might catch one sipping from your Hummingbird feeder from time to time.
When foraging, the Red-bellied Woodpecker has a unique advantage in it’s tongue, which sticks out nearly 2 inches from the tip of it’s bill. The tip of the tongue is barbed and this bird is also equipped with sticky saliva, allowing it to probe crevices in trees to effective catch prey that has burrowed deep within.
These birds are sometimes seen flying in chaotic directions through the woods and scientists believe that they are teaching evasive action to their young. This may well be the case, as they are sometimes driven from their nest by large and aggressive European Starlings. They have also been seen hammering nuts into cracks in tree bark, presumably to store a cache of useful food for when the foraging is scarce.
Red-Headed Woodpecker – Melanerpes erythrocephalus
Coloration and Markings: Red-headed Woodpeckers are quite striking, with black backs and medium length black wings which are white for the lower half yet black at the tips. They have short, black tails and the belly and breast of this bird are a paper white. Facially, this bird really shines, with a velvety red color covering the face and the throat. Juveniles will have grayish brown heads, however, slowly reddening as the bird matures. These birds have large, stout, and straight black bills.
Size: These birds measure in at 7.5 – 9.1 inches in length and have wingspans of approximately 16.5 inches wide.
Habitat: These birds love open woods and are especially fond of pine savannahs. They are also attracted to fallen trees in swamp areas, especially where beavers have been damming up the waters.
Diet: These birds love beech nuts and acorns and are also quite adept at catching insects in mid-air.
More about the Red-headed Woodpecker
The beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker has a lifespan of approximately 9 years and is most commonly spotted in the upper peninsula during breeding season, but in the lower peninsula during the winter. These Woodpeckers like to travel in groups and tend to forage by sitting on a branch and watching for flying insects, launching from their perches to gobble them whole in flight. These birds prepare well for the winter, storing up food in the cavities that they bore for their homes, and they aren’t just storing nuts. Red-headed Woodpeckers will also store insects, including grasshoppers, which they store alive by wedging them too tightly into the wood to escape.
They’ve even achieved a somewhat mythical status with the Cherokee tribe. Red-headed Woodpeckers were used as a symbol of war and immortalized by Longfellow as well in his poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. The war-symbol is rather apt, as these birds are fiercely territorial. Red-headed Woodpeckers will not brook other birds in their territories, and are known to destroy nests and to pierce eggs to drive other birds out – even larger ducks!
Some Final Words
That concludes our little foray into the world of Michigan Woodpeckers and we hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as we have enjoyed writing it. Michigan is a great place for birding in general, but especially for spotting Woodpeckers, so be sure to keep an eye out, your feeder fully-stocked, and your camera ready because you never know when one of these beautiful birds will be coming to visit. Until next time, we wish you the best!