You can hear a woodpecker up to half a mile away as they drum their bills on trees, fences, barns, and even metal roofs and vehicles.
Seven members of the woodpecker family live in the many wooded habitats of Tennessee. The true woodpeckers include the red-bellied, red-headed, downy, hairy, and pileated.
The family has other representatives often referred to as woodpeckers. These are the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the northern flicker.
Here is a guide on these seven species and their natural history within Tennessee.
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Woodpeckers, the Picidae Family
The woodpeckers, also known as the Picidae family, have 210 species globally. Seven live in Missouri. The family specializes in using their heads as a hammer and nails to bore into trees.
From the trees, they pluck their favorite insects. Some also eat fruit, sap, or forage insects from the ground. They also vary their diet depending on what is available during each season.
Most woodpeckers are resident species, meaning they stay in the same habitat year-round. Few woodpeckers are migratory. They live in pairs or alone.
The Woodpecker Body
The birds have a three-layered reinforced skull. Keratin scales are on the outside, porous connecting bone is in the middle, and collagen tongue or hyoid bone is on the inside. The brain has a smooth surface and little fluid. That way, the brain stays stable when hammering.
Whether they are woodpeckers out West or in the East, all have high-contrast plumage. Some also have feather crests on their heads. White and black are common, but some species have red or yellow. Then the northern flicker has all the above plus green.
Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet. Zygodactyl means they have four toes with the first and the fourth backward-facing and the second and third forward. This arrangement enables them to hold onto various branch sizes and trunks at different angles.
For feeding, woodpecker heads have a straight bill and long tongue. After the bill drills, the tongue ejects and wiggles into tree holes to grab prey.
You will observe woodpeckers most in the spring when they hammer away to create a new nest inside a tree. Nests take one month to complete with a round entry and a large, bare chamber.
Woodpeckers drum when finding a mate. Drumming refers to a pattern of rapid hammering and pauses specific to the species and repeated. Instead of singing, woodpeckers drum. And they drum various objects from trees to pipes.
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Living in Tennessee and Its Habitats
Woodpeckers live in Tennessee’s forests, entirely developed to climb and bore into trees. The state has a swathe of oak-pine forest across the southeastern half of the state. The birds will also live in thinly wooded areas in the deep southeast lowlands and northwestern grasslands.
These birds usually create their nests. But sometimes they take over an existing smaller bird, including other woodpeckers. Yet, sometimes, they get evicted by the European starling, a large, invasive bird. In some areas, starlings invade half of the woodpecker nests.
Woodpeckers benefit their habitats. They eat problematic insects like some wood borer beetle species that threaten ash and oak trees.
Their predators include snakes, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, hawks, and owls.
1. Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are light-colored with black and white wings and a red cap. Females lack red over the forehead, and juveniles lack any red.
The oldest recorded red-bellied woodpecker was a tagged male that lived 12 years. Adults grow to 24 cm (9.5 in) long, weigh 56–91 g (2–3 oz), and have a wingspan of 33–42 cm (13–16.5 in).
They live year-round in forests and wooded suburbs, especially those with wetlands across Tennessee. Red-bellies are fond of pine, maple, oak, and hickory habitats.
You have likely heard them if you have spent significant time outdoors in Tennessee. You’ll know their drumming and calling, even if you haven’t put their name to them. If you look to middling heights in the trees in the direction of their sounds, you should find one or get close to it.
Red-bellied woodpeckers have tongues that can push beyond the bill by 5.1 cm (2.0 in). It has barbs coated in sticky saliva, perfect for fishing insects from holes in trees. Males have longer and wider tongues.
Scientists theorize that the genders fulfill different ecological niches because of this.
Besides boring for insects, these woodpeckers also wedge nuts into crevices. They then hammer at them to break them into pieces small enough to eat. They will also store food in such nooks. This species also likes grapes, oranges, minnows, small birds, and lizards.
You can attract red-bellied woodpeckers to your bird feeder. Use suet in the winter, and otherwise offer peanuts and sunflower seeds. Sometimes they’ll drink nectar from hummingbird feeders.
If you have dead or dying trees with dead branches on your property, the woodpeckers are likely nearby foraging and building nests.
A parent pair may nest in the same tree every year. They aren’t picky and will peck along oaks, hickories, maples, and other species.
Red-bellied woodpeckers create a new hole of 22–32 cm (8.6–12.6 in) in diameter for each year below the old one. Nests will be 9–13 cm (3.5–5.1 in) deep and have wood chips for 2–6 white eggs to use as bedding. The young are born naked and helpless.
2. Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) has a deep red covering the entire head, neck, and some of the chest. It also has a black back and is otherwise white. Males and females look alike, but juveniles lack the red head.
You may think the red-bellied woodpecker should have the red-headed name. The real red-headed woodpecker is the reason why the red-bellied missed out.
The oldest recorded wild red-headed woodpecker was a male of almost ten years. Adults grow to 19–23 cm (7.5–9.0 in) long, weigh 56–91 g (2–3 oz), and have a wingspan of 42 cm (16.5 in).
Red-headed woodpeckers live in oak-pine woodlands, forest edges, recent clearings, swamps, and farms. Especially in the breeding season, they prefer disturbed ecosystems. “Disturbed” refers to settings like farms and clearings.
They live across natural Tennessee besides the mountainous border with North Carolina.
These birds live in Tennessee year-round in declining numbers. They are territorial. They will vacate eggs from other birds’ nests, destroy nests, or peck eggs too large to remove.
This species stands out among woodpeckers. Red-heads catch flies in mid-air rather than digging into trees for other insects. They are also willing to eat bird eggs or hunt mice.
On a more ordinary note, red-headed woodpeckers also go after grasshoppers, beetles, bees, and cicadas.
Red-heads also eat more nuts and store them in crevices of trees, fences, and roofs. They cache insects, including living grasshoppers who can’t hop away. Red-heads are the only North American woodpeckers to cover their caches.
Like the red-bellied woodpeckers, red-heads like suet in the winter from bird feeders. They also love a wide array of nuts and fruits. This species will eat corn, acorns, pecans, cherries, raspberries, grapes, apples, and pears.
Red-headed woodpeckers will nest in pines, maples, and oaks that are dead or have dead branches. Sometimes they’ll use utility poles and houses. The male picks the location, and the female will hammer by it if she approves. The pair will use the same nest year after year.
Within two weeks, the male will do most of the excavating with some help from the female.
The entrance will be 5 cm (2 in) in diameter by the end of construction. The nest will be 7.6–15.2 cm (3–6 in) across and 20.3–40.6 cm (8–16 in) deep. The female will lay 3–10 white eggs. The young are born naked and helpless.
As fitting for their aggressive behavior, the Cherokee people adopted the red-headed woodpecker as a war symbol. It also appears in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic The Song of Hiawatha toward the end of Chapter 9, “Hiawatha and the Pearl Feather”:
“Then the grateful Hiawatha
Called from his perch among the branches
Of the melancholy pine-tree,
And, in honor of his service,
Stained with blood the tuft of feathers
On the little head of Mama;
Even to this day he wears it,
Wears the tuft of crimson feathers
As a symbol of his service.”
In other words, the woodpecker received a head of red feathers as thanks for his service.
Unlike other woodpeckers in Tennessee, the red-headed woodpeckers have a declining population. This decline has been 2 percent each year since the North American Breeding Bird Survey started in 1966, totaling a 70 percent decline.
This decline resulted in a Near Threatened status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Ornithologists suspect this might be due to the loss of mature forests with enough nut-bearing and dead trees.
3. Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) have a dash of red on their heads but otherwise have alternating black and white all over. The head has a bar pattern, the wings have a checker, the back is black, and the belly is white.
The oldest known individual was a male and shy of 12 years. These estimates come down to the first time-tagged and last time observed. So the bird would’ve been older to some degree.
Adults grow to 14–17 cm (5.5–6.5 in) long, weigh 21–28 g (0.7–1.0 oz), and have a wingspan of 25–30 cm (10–12 in).
Downy woodpeckers live year-round in forests, parklands, and residential areas. You can see them all over Tennessee and the eastern United States.
They are petite in the world of woodpeckers. Because of their size, they often hang out with common backyard birds at feeders. It also prefers navigating branches and smaller trees compared to larger woodpeckers.
Males will forage on beetles and ants on smaller branches and weed stems, while females work with larger branches and tree trunks. If there is no male, the female will adopt male eating habits. As smaller woodpeckers, they also eat wasp galls and other small insect sources.
Like many other woodpeckers, downies also have a share of their diet focused on fruits and nuts. Yet, they may eat from cattails and reeds.
As frequent visitors to bird feeders, downies eat many types of feed. They’ll consume suet, sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and peanut butter. They also use nectar feeders for hummingbirds. If you have other birds, you might see a downy among them.
They like to nest in short prongs on dead deciduous branches that aren’t vertical so their entrance can be on the underside. As small as downies are, they prefer trees with wood softened from a fungal infection.
Downy woodpeckers work as a pair for around two weeks to prepare the nest.
The entrance finishes at 2.5–3.8 cm (1.0–1.5 in) across. The nest will be 15.2–30.5 cm (6–12 in) deep with a pear shape, where the base is broader, and have wood chips for 3–8 white eggs to use as bedding. The young are born naked and helpless.
4. Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)
The hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) resembles the downy woodpecker. Males have a red band on their heads, and all the species have a checkered black and white pattern. But hairy woodpeckers are larger, have longer bills, and favor larger branches and trees.
The oldest member of the species was a male that lived almost 16 years. Adults grow to 18–26 cm (7–10 in) long, weigh 40–95 g (1.5–3.5 oz), and have a wingspan of 33–41 cm (13–16 in).
Hairy woodpeckers live year-round in Tennessee and much of North America. They favor many forests, swamps, grasslands, and farm types and only avoid deserts and tundra.
The bark beetles and wood borers that hairy woodpeckers eat cause infestations in Tennessee’s forests. Hairy woodpeckers fulfill a beneficial niche in these areas. They will have population booms during infestations.
This woodpecker takes advantage of yellow-bellied sapsuckers for their sap wells. It also stalks pileated woodpeckers. When the pileated leaves the drill site, hairies will move in and clean up whatever insects the pileated missed. Hairies also will peck sugar cane to drink that sap.
Hairy woodpeckers eat the typical woodpecker diet of wood borer beetles, bark beetles, and ants. They may also branch into spiders, grasshoppers, wasps, millipedes, and various larvae of common insects.
Hairy woodpeckers will show up at bird feeders with suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds and usually in the winter. Often bird watchers can see nested dead trees from their home windows.
Like many woodpeckers, they nest in standing dead trees or dead branches of living trees infected with a fungus. The branch is off-vertical so that they can create an entrance on the underside.
Nest entrances are 5 cm (2 in) high and 3.8 cm (1.5 in) wide, while the interior is 20.3–30.5 cm (8–12 in) deep with a broader, wood chip-covered base than above. The pairs will lay 3–6 white eggs. The young are born naked and helpless.
When the family leaves, smaller birds and squirrels may move in.
5. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) have the iconic red-tufted crests. You may remember cartoon illustrations with this look. If you see that crest, you know it’s the pileated species. Ivory-billed woodpeckers have them as well, but this species is likely extinct.
Males, females, and juveniles have them, though males also have a red cheek stripe. The rest of the body and head are black with white side stripes.
The oldest member of the species was a male that lived almost 13 years. Adults grow 40–49 cm (16.0–19.5 in) long, weigh 250–350 g (9.0–12.5 oz) and have a wingspan of 66–75 cm (26.0–29.5 in).
Pileated woodpeckers live year-round in Tennessee’s mature forests. Mature forests have more standing dead trees and fallen logs for the bird to forage. Because they like both standing and fallen trees, you can find these woodpeckers at any height in the forest.
They will also appear in young forests of yards that have a lot of dead trees around left from logging, a fire, or other disturbance. Swamps also have plentiful dead trees for these woodpeckers to find food.
Pileated woodpeckers look for carpenter ants from inside tree cavities and on the outside. The birds have barbed tongues to snag prey. When the woodpecker can’t find those particular ants, they find other ants, beetle larvae, and termites.
This species also likes fruits and nuts from understory trees, vines, and bushes. Some plants include hackberry, sassafras, blackberries, dogwood, sumac, and poison ivy.
Pileated woodpeckers may visit bird feeders if there is suet. Otherwise, if you want to attract them, you will want any dead trees you can safely leave alone.
Old dead trees make the best nesting sites, though fresher ones suffice when options are limited. Both when the monogamous pair is occupying the nest and when they are with it, other animals move in. Swifts, bluebirds, owls, other woodpeckers, and bats might share the space.
Males do most of the nest creation, which takes 3–6 weeks. It reaches 25.4–63.5 cm (10–24 in) deep and will host 3–5 white eggs. The young are born naked and helpless.
This species carves large, oblong nest entrances. Pileated woodpeckers create the same holes when excavating for ants. Sometimes these holes are too large for the tree, and it snaps.
6. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) are mottled in black and white and have red on their head. This species has a pale yellow belly that might be hard to see at a distance. Males have red necks, and the young look smeared with dirty yellow over the black and white.
The oldest known member of this species was a male. He lived 7.75 years, according to tag data. Adults grow to 18–22 cm (7–9 in) long, weigh 43–55 g (1.5–2.0 oz), and have a wingspan of 34–40 cm (13.5–16 in).
These birds live across Tennessee other than the higher points of the Appalachian Mountains like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
You can see the signs of a yellow-bellied sapsucker in deciduous tree bark, often river birch and maple. Faster-growing trees at the edges of forests, clearings, or rivers provide better sap. This is especially the case during spring and summer.
In the spring, sapsuckers drill narrow, deep holes into the bark to extract the sap like a person would for maple syrup. The bird starts small holes into the inner wood called the xylem, where the tree pumps fluids and minerals up from the roots.
After trees bud, sapsuckers create wide, shallow holes into a layer under the bark called the phloem. This zone circulates sugar from the leaves.
These holes, called sap wells, may align in rows around the tree. When the row is full of holes, the bird will create a new row above it. Sapsuckers will return to these wells to take new collections of sap. You’ll also see the birds at the ends of branches where some insects collect.
Diet: Typical woodpecker
Sapsuckers also seek any ants or spiders mixed into that outer layer of wood. Its tongue tip resembles a brush and catches food in the bristles. Sometimes the birds will visit orchards and other fruit trees.
This species has the opposite phenomenon to woodpeckers who take sap from hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds will use the sap wells created by the sapsuckers. Some hummingbirds even time their migration with sapsuckers for this reason. Bats also use these wells.
Yellow-bellies rarely use bird feeders. If they do, they’ll visit when the feeder has suet.
These birds nest in living trees that have a fungal infection. This condition softens the wood so that it’s easier to create the nest. Males select the nesting sites, and the same mating pair may use the same nest for many years.
Males also do most of the nest excavation over 2–3 weeks. They keep the entrance as small as 3.8 cm (1.5 in) in diameter, and the nest reaches 25.4 cm (10 in) deep and has wood chips for 4–6 white eggs to use as bedding. The young are born naked and helpless.
7. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a stand-out for birders. It forages all year on the ground of open woodlands, swamps, forest edges, and yards near where it and its rainbow of colors stand out.
The oldest member was a male of 9 years. Adults grow to 28–31 cm (11–12 in) long, weigh 110–160 g (4.0–5.5 oz), and have a wingspan of 42–51 cm (16.5–20.0 in).
The eastern or yellow-shafted variety found in Tennessee has red on the nape. It also has yellow on the tail and belly, green-blue from the forehead to the wings and back, and rust for the rest of the head and neck. It also has black flecks on the wings and belly and a black bib.
Flickers can climb trees and nest like other woodpeckers, but they prefer ground food. They also sometimes move into ground-level vacated kingfisher or swallow burrows.
This species likes to drum as much as other woodpeckers, but they make as much noise as possible. Metal rings the loudest, so the birds will find outdoor metal equipment more than other species.
Flickers search for ants and beetles on the ground, using their bills to dig into dirt rather than wood. Barbed tongues pick up their prey. Flickers will also peck into cow patties to get to the ants and larvae underneath.
Sometimes flickers will eat butterflies, snails, fruits, and nuts. For fruit, the birds will forage from smaller trees and large field plants. They like cherry, ivy, thistles, grapes, sumac, dogwood, and hackberries.
Flickers aren’t attracted to bird feeders. But if you have a birdbath or a natural habitat for a yard, you may receive visits. They’ll hop along with wrens and robins that are small and plain next to the flicker.
Large dead or dying trees make the best nesting sites for flickers. They often pick abandoned nests excavated by other species 1.8–4.6 m (6–15 ft) above the ground.
Both the male and female build the nest.
They make the entrance 7.6 cm (3 in) in diameter, and the nest is 33–40.6 cm (13–16 in) deep with a broader space with wood chips at the bottom. The 5–8 eggs hatch naked and helpless. They rest on the bedding until they are two weeks old. At that point, they can cling to the walls.