There are several species of woodpeckers found in Michigan. They are scattered throughout the state, waiting to be discovered. The key to success in finding these beautiful birds is through identification, and of course, using your ears!
Some woodpeckers in Michigan look similar but have slightly different body types. Some have distinct foraging habits, while others make use of the woodpecker’s common drumming patterns. Still, others display vibrant colors that are unique only to their subspecies.
In this comprehensive guide, I will take you on a colorful journey into the wonderful world of Michigan woodpeckers. You’ll not only be able to identify them but have a clearer understanding of their mating rituals and fighting behaviors. Then, I’ll provide you with a few tips for inviting them to your backyard.
Types of Woodpeckers Found in Michigan
1. Hairy woodpecker
You can find the Hairy woodpecker in mature deciduous trees over 60 years old. These birds are usually non-migratory and stay within the Michigan habitat range year-round.
The best way to identify the Hairy woodpecker is by the patch of white plumage descending along its back. The other identifier is its height. The Hairy is approximately nine inches tall.
You can also tell a Hairy woodpecker by the way it flies. There is an unusual intermittent bounding motion in between short flights.
They also have a peculiar way of climbing. They look almost unsteady while attempting to ascend tree branches.
During mating season, the male Hairy woodpecker will make a series of chattering calls while raising its red crown. It will then spread its tail to expose its white rectrices.
During the courtship ritual, the male will sneak up on the female by climbing a tree to get to her. Once she discovers him, they will fly through the trees and land and then fly some more. Mating eventually occurs, but only after the female consents with a twittering call.
The bonding usually takes place in late winter. And it’s worth mentioning that the pair will probably remain monogamous.
2. Downy woodpecker
You probably won’t find the Downy Woodpecker in a patch of new growth trees. They prefer the older, more established forests. This inclination is perhaps due to the trees being larger and providing more robust branches for the Downy woodpecker to build its nests.
The Downy Woodpecker is slightly smaller than the Hairy Woodpecker. The Downy Woodpecker stands six inches tall, while the Hairy Woodpecker stands a proud nine inches tall.
Here are some distinguishing features used to identify the Downy Woodpecker:
- Black wings with white dots
- “W” shaped rectrices
- White nape
- White rectangle-shaped patch on the back
- Black auriculars
- Red patch from the nape to the crown
- The underside is mostly grey
Unlike the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker has a smaller bill than its head.
The Downy woodpecker also has a unique mating ritual from the Hairy Woodpecker. The male will drum on a dead tree, and the female will later join him. This joining together indicates where the nest will be. After mating, this will be their permanent home.
3. Red-bellied woodpecker
The Red-bellied woodpecker is somewhat more adaptable to various living conditions than other varieties. Although they prefer mature forest habitats, they will live in suitable nesting areas below 3,000 ft elevation.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are between 9” and 10.5” tall and weigh about 2.5 oz. They have a black and white zebra-patterned back. And they also boast a long sharp black bill.
They get their name from having a small red patch in the ventral region. But the rest is grey from the face to the belly.
The males sport a bright red cap from the neck to the forehead. The females also have some red, but it only covers the nape of the neck. And unlike most bird species, there is no change in color with the seasons.
The mating ritual for the red-bellied woodpecker is similar to other woodpeckers. There is plenty of tapping at the preferred nesting site. The female will often tap from inside the nesting cavity while the male lightly taps the outside.
4. Black-backed woodpecker
A unique attribute of the Black-backed woodpecker is where it chooses to live. Of course, it needs to forage for insects. But what makes their preference so unusual is their attraction to fire-ravaged trees. Scientists believe this is because there are better food sources there due to fleeing insect populations.
The black-backed woodpecker is about 8.5” to 9.0” tall and weighs between 2 oz to 3 oz. They have a black back with white underneath. Although the outer feathers are white, the wings are mostly black. And the head is black with a white stripe running from the nasal area to the nape of the neck.
The way you can tell a male from a female is by its yellow forehead. The male is also slightly larger than its female counterpart.
The toe configuration for the Black-backed woodpecker is a bit odd. It has two toes facing forward and one facing back.
Black-backed woodpeckers typically mate only once per season. When that happens, there is not much song and dance. Instead, the males will raise their prominent yellow crests, and then the females fly over to see what the fuss is all about.
The Black-Backed Woodpecker is also a bit anti-social. Once the couple runs off together, they rarely interact with other woodpeckers except to staunchly defend the nest.
Breeding season for the Black-backed woodpecker is also a bit different from other species. Instead of breeding in late winter, they breed from early June to July.
5. Pileated woodpecker
You can find the Pileated woodpecker nesting in hollow trees with multiple entry points. It prefers the areas around a stream, either in thick forests or green, open plains.
The pileated woodpecker is the largest one here on this list. It stands a proud 16” to 19” inches, towering over all other woodpeckers found in North America. Interestingly, both the male and female of the species are roughly the same size.
When the Pileated woodpecker is in flight, it can remind you of watching a crow. But you can tell it’s a woodpecker by its robust and billowy flight pattern.
It has mostly a light charcoal body with a brilliant splash of white under its wings. And its 29-inch wingspan shows this clearly.
The triangular-shaped crest is bright red, with the males having an extended red stripe on the cheek. The rest of the face and neck are black with white stripes.
Pileated woodpeckers are distinct in their drilling patterns. They use a slow, deep, rolling cadence when carving out a dead tree with their long beak. The sound can carry quite well through the entire forest.
Their call is also quite distinct. It almost sounds like a high-pitched whinnying that a horse would make.
The egg development period for the Pileated woodpecker is about 12 to 14 days. Incubation duties are spread equally between male and female, with the male taking the night watch.
Also, the Pileated woodpecker is a staunch defender of its nest, especially the males. It uses its long bill to jab at enemies. It will again chase away any intruders while calling out to them in a loud voice. So, it is truly a fierce spectacle of aggression.
6. American three-toed woodpecker
There are three subspecies of the American Three-toed Woodpecker. The one I am concerned with here in Michigan is the Eastern bacatus found from the Great Lakes region eastward.
It’s a medium-sized woodpecker, measuring 8” to 9” in height. And it weighs between 1.2 oz and 2.4 oz. It has a rounded body with a short, bladed bill that can chisel easily through the wood.
Both males and females are black with white barring down the back. And the wings usually have white spots, especially on the edges. The stark difference is that the males have a prominent yellow crown patch, whereas the females don’t.
The American three-toed woodpecker will seldom forage deeply into the wood. Instead, it lightly scales the bark of a tree, looking for insects.
The breeding season is usually in late March and is especially heavy after a major forest fire. The mating pair will slow down their drumming to signal their location and communicate their desire to mate.
However, the drumming speeds up when defending their territory. This woodpecker also uses a reproval call sounding like a “kri-kri-kri” while banishing an intruder. The funny thing is, you will occasionally hear the females rebuke their male counterparts in this manner.
7. Northern Flicker
The Northern Flicker is one of the few migratory woodpecker species. They range from Alaska to the Eastern Seaboard and south into Nicaragua. And they can be found all throughout Michigan.
Like most woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to nest in dead trees in these locations:
- Dense forests
- Agricultural lands
- Recently burnt areas
- Forest edges
- Open areas
The Northern Flicker is slightly larger than the average woodpecker, measuring from 11” to 14” in height. And it also weighs a hefty six ounces on average.
The wonderful color pattern of the Northern Flicker starts with a base coat of light brown throughout. It will also have black dots dispersed throughout its underside and wings. And then there is usually a prominent white patch on its lower backside.
For Northern Flickers spotted in Michigan, you’ll notice a bright yellow color under its wings. Here are some of the distinctive male color patterns to look for:
- Open areas
- Gray crown
- Red Nape
- Black mustache
- Black-crested breast
- Yellow tail
The most unusual behavior of the Northern Flicker compared to other woodpeckers in their foraging habits. They spend most of their time on the ground looking for a meal of ants and beetles.
So, if you desire to spot one, you may want to try looking down instead of up. Still, you can find plenty of these beautiful birds perching on a tree branch.
The breeding season for the Northern Flicker is between February and July. However, if you want to witness their wonderful mating rituals in Michigan, you’ll need to travel to the upper peninsula. That’s about as far south as they go during the breeding season.
If you can catch a glimpse during this time, you’ll witness an amazing spectacle of aggressive displays. During the breeding season, male Northern Flickers are incredibly hostile to each other. And the competition for the right to mate can become fierce.
Here are some of the more hostile behaviors displayed by the males:
Bill directing. This is a behavior where the defending male will point his bill toward an aggressor. It signals that he will have to take a more drastic approach if he is provoked any further.
Bill Poking. When a male has had enough of the challenger, he will use a stabbing motion toward his opponent. From that moment forward, it’s “game on.”
Head swinging. This behavior is a fighting technique utilized by the male Northern Flicker. It aims to incapacitate, or at least thwart off, an attacking opponent.
Head bobbing and tail spreading. These displays of defense are usually a precursor to a fight. And they signal to the challenger that this male is not going down easily.
What’s interesting here is that these aggressive behaviors are only displayed during the breeding season. That’s when male Northern Flickers challenge each other. With predators, they are content to simply flee.
8. Red-headed woodpecker
I’ve saved the most vibrant, colorful bird on my survey for last. It is the beautiful Red-headed woodpecker. And it is spectacular.
It has a crimson-colored head that stands out boldly against any background. The great thing is, both the male and female have this feature.
The body of the adult is snow white, while the wings are navy blue. There’s usually a white patch on the bird’s backside. Juvenile Red-headed woodpeckers are mostly brown and don’t grow into their red color until after their first molt.
The average length of the Red-headed woodpecker is from 8” to 10.’ And it weighs in at an average of 2.6 oz.
The Red-headed woodpecker is resourceful when choosing a nesting area. It has been known to set up housekeeping in hollow logs, under the eves of human-made structures and utility poles.
While the male does most of the excavating, the female occasionally helps. However, both have a say on where the nest is to be located.
It can be argued that the most exciting characteristic of the Red-headed woodpecker is its overtly aggressive nature. They are one of the few woodpecker species that will invade another bird’s nest. And they will routinely remove or puncture the eggs of rival species.
How To Attract Woodpeckers To Your Backyard
If you are not going to be in the Michigan area anytime soon, don’t fret. Several species listed here could make an appearance wherever you are in the US or Canada. So, here, I’ll let you in on a few of the secrets to attracting them to your backyard.
- Plant trees specific to woodpecker habitats. Oaktrees and pines are the best. The downside is that they take several years to fully grow. If you already have these in your backyard, you are one step ahead.
- Provide a snag, which is part of a dead tree or stump. This will give your woodpeckers an extra enticement, or at least a comfortable place to perch.
- Plant berry bushes. The next best thing to having a large tree in your backyard is to make available a variety of berries. Some woodpecker species are known to feast on blueberries, raspberries, and apples.
- Set up your bird feeders so your woodpeckers will have lots of room to perch. This can be accomplished by utilizing platform feeders throughout the backyard. If you don’t have a bird feeder yet, they are a must have.
- Suet is the best food to attract Michigan woodpeckers. You can make your own by melting animal fat in a pan. Before it cools, add some extra goodies like insects, chunky peanut butter, or birdseed.
Michigan woodpeckers are an extraordinary species of bird. They offer hours of entertainment by watching their many quirks. You can also get enjoyment from the myriad of unique sounds they make.
However, you must distinguish one species of Michigan woodpeckers from another when trying to catalog them. There are many variations between them, but there are also a lot of similarities.
Hopefully, in this guide, I have offered you ways to tell the differences between the various Michigan woodpeckers species despite their common traits.