Winter Feeder Birds: Indentifying Woodpeckers

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

For the last several mornings, I have heard the distinctive drumming of a woodpecker as I leave for work. I bet very few of my neighbors know we have woodpeckers among us. But, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers visit my backyard bird feeders year-around.

I have watched woodpeckers take sunflower and peanut seeds from my seed feeder. But, mostly they come for the suet. I use suet with peanuts in it. I have both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers at my feeders.

Below are photos of the most common woodpeckers to come to bird feeders in the winter. Whether they are frequent visitors in the eastern or western North America is noted behind each species name.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) (east, west)

The Downy is the woodpecker you are most likely to see in urban areas than the Hairy. Downies are widespread at feeders that offer fat or suet. Downies will also eat sunflower seeds and cracked corn.

The Downy is the smallest woodpeckers. It has a small, short, dainty bill when compared to the Hairy Woodpecker. The Downy has outer tail feathers that are white with black spots. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger. To choose between Downy and Hairy, I remember, “Downies have dots”, for the black spots on the white tail feathers.


Male Hairy Woodpecker at my feeders.
Male Hairy Woodpecker at my feeders.


Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) (east, west)

The Hairy Woodpecker can be distinguished from the Downy Woodpecker by the unspotted white outer feathers on its’ tail. The Downy Woodpecker has black spots on the white outer tail feathers and is smaller than the Hairy. The Hairy has a larger, chunkier bill than the Downy.

If you are not sure whether a Downy or Hairy woodpecker is visiting your feeder, placing bright color tape about 7 inches apart. A Downy is 6 – 7 inches high, the Hairy is 8 – 9.5 inches high. This may make it easier to gauge the size and the species. The outer tail feathers of the Hairy are white with no black spots. The Downy has black spots on the outer-tail feathers.

The Hairy Woodpecker’s natural food is beetle larvae and the fatty, mushy suet resembles it. So, to attract the Hairy Woodpecker put out suet. In addition to suet peanut butter mixes and meat scraps also attract the birds. But Hairy Woodpeckers come to all my feeders, including sunflower seeds, nyjer and suet.


Red-bellied Woodpecker on a tree. (Wikipedia)
Red-bellied Woodpecker on a tree. (Wikipedia)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) (east, west)

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a widespread bird that is spreading northward in winter. Red-bellies often cache food for food-scare winter days.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has bright-red plumage only on the head (the male) and on the nape of the back of the neck (both male and female).  The back is barred black and white. The red belly is one of the those traits you can’t see unless you hold the bird in your hand. The red on the belly is most a blush and isn’t easy to see when the bird is perched on a tree trunk.

Red-bellies have a generalized diet and will sample nearly everything. To attract Red-bellied Woodpeckers use suet, puddings, sunflowers seeds, peanuts and acorns. Acorns are nearly 70% of its natural diet. I wonder if they like white or red acorns? Acorns of white oaks are sweeter than the acorns of black and red oaks.


Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) (east, west)

I would love to see a Flicker at my feeders. they are in the woods and forests not far from my house, but I haven’t seen one outside to the woods. These flickers spend most of their time on the ground. Their natural foods are ants. In winter the eat fruits and seeds, including the berries of poison ivy and poison sumac.

Flickers are relatively uncommon at feeders, but they do show up in some lucky places. In feeders, Flickers like bird puddings, suet and black-oiled sunflower seeds. Offering these foods on the ground, where the Flicker normally eats should help. Logs with drilled holes filled with suet, could work or tree-mounted feeders

Flickers are large, 12 1/2″ – 13″ high. Flickers are very distinctive-looking. I think they are smart-looking birds. They have a black bib under the throat, a light brown back and black spots back and front. The males have a black mustache; females do not. Both sexes have a slash of red color on the back of their heads.

Flickers have different colors ways and are not considered different species. And there are hybrids between eastern and western birds.

I enjoy watching the woodpeckers. The don’t fly away until I come quite close to them.

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.


More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Birds

WInter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds


Identifying Bird by Color

Birds by Color: Blue

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color; Red Birds

Identifying Little Gray Birds



  1. I throughly enjoy reading your articles in the morning before breakfast. It makes me look forward to going outside after breakfast to revel with nature. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful photos! Now, I am wondering how many times I may have thought a Hairy was a Downy or Vice-Verse. I’m still a little confused, but that’s just my brain, because you have done a great job at identifying them. I will come back to this page with my photos in view.

    Nice to come upon your beautiful blog!

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