06.20/Woodpeckers

I've found during my years of wildlife photography that many of my best bird photos are taken in or near open fields.

That's not the case when photographing woodpeckers. They tend to stay deep in the woods because they drill or drum on trees to find food. There's not much for them to do in an open field.

I’ve photographed nearly every type of woodpecker found near our homes in central Ohio and  southwest Florida, but my favorite is the giant Pileated Woodpecker. Pileated Woodpeckers are huge, standing up to 19 inches tall. That’s about the size of a crow and twice as large as a Blue Jay. 

And Pileateds are active, flying from tree to tree to drill the wood in search of insects, often a colony of ants (their favorite food). 

When a Pileated Woodpecker is finished with a tree it looks like someone has taken a jackhammer to the wood. Sometimes the cavity created by the woodpecker is so deep that it can cause a smaller tree to break.

The Pileated Woodpecker served as the model for Woody Woodpecker, the cartoon character created by Walter Lantz in 1940.

The woodpecker is see most frequently is the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a bird that is common in forests across the eastern United States. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is about nine inches tall. Males have a red cape and nape. Females have a red nape. The bird also has a small red-tinged patch on it’s belly. Some people incorrectly call this a Red-headed Woodpecker. That’s a different, less common species with a head that’s entirely red.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers search for insects hidden in tree bark, as do other varieties of woodpeckers. But Red-bellied Woodpeckers also use the bark as a sort of tool. They wedge large nuts into crevices in the bark, then use their beaks to hammer the nuts into pieces. Like other varieties of woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers also use cracks in trees to store food for later in the year.

The most difficult woodpecker for me to identify is the Downy … or maybe the Hairy.  Downy Woodpeckers are almost identical to the larger Hairy Woodpecker in plumage pattern, so making an ID from a photo can be difficult. Males in both species have a red spot on the back of the head. The Downy does have black spots on its white tail feathers. And the Downy’s bill is shorter than its head while the Hairy’s bill is about equal length to its head.


When a Pileated Woodpecker is finished with a tree it looks like someone has taken a jackhammer to the wood. Sometimes the cavity created by the woodpecker is so deep that it can cause a smaller tree to break.

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