Woodpeckers are important members of the bird community, pounding out nesting holes later used by other cavity-nesting bird species. Tree cavities are hard to find.

When the birds are attacking your house or cabin, well, they’re just trying to be helpful then, too.

Woodpeckers need to hack out a home. And they need food. They’re looking for insects that invade trees — wood-boring beetles, termites, caterpillars, carpenter ants and spiders.

And, there are times when the birds, rightly or not, sense the presence of those food items behind the siding on your house.

Our regular woodpeckers are the downy, hairy, red-bellied, black-backed, three-toed, red-headed, Northern flicker, pileated, and yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Six of these are full-time residents. Flickers, red-heads and sapsuckers usually go south in the fall, although flickers occasionally overwinter.

Downy woodpecker: The smallest of North American woodpeckers, black and white, sexes are similar but for red on the mature male’s head. It mostly takes insects from surfaces. Readily takes suet at feeders.

Hairy woodpecker: A larger black-and-white bird, male also marked with red. It does more excavating for food, less gleaning from the surface of trees and branches.

Red-bellied woodpecker: A bird with a not-obvious blush on its belly in breeding season. Both sexes have bright red marking on napes and heads. These birds expanded their range from southeastern states into south and central Minnesota decades ago. Now they’re as far north as Ely. You know the reason for that.

Red-headed woodpecker: Well-named, hard to not recognize, population in decline. Its preferred habitat is savanna, scattered mature trees on an open grassy landscape. Pastures, also in decline, are/were a favorite choice. Red-heads eat insects, nuts, berries, earthworms, fruit, sometimes eggs and nestlings of other birds. They fly-catch, snatching insects from the air.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker: Medium size with a yellowish belly, red on the head, a red throat on the male. It opens sap wells in smooth-barked trees, drilling a sometimes very neat line of small holes from which sap oozes. The bird returns to eat, sap being about 20% of a diet that includes insects and fruit.

Northern flicker: Our second-largest woodpecker, a good foot in length, brownish overall, marked with smart barring on its back and stylish spots on its breast and belly. It shows a wide black slash at the throat. You often see them on lawns, poking for ants, a major food item.

Pileated woodpecker: Over 16 inches long, with a 30-inch wingspan, a bird with a stop-in-your-tracks voice. Both sexes have red crests; the male adds a slash of red on its face, touching the bill. They are found in deciduous wooded areas. They feed on carpenter ants, termites, insect larvae, fruits and nuts. They could take your house apart.

Black-backed woodpecker and three-toed woodpecker: Uncommon boreal-forest birds the size of a hairy woodpecker, both are specialists in beetles and larvae. They like burns, where dead and dying trees can be found.

Twenty-seven species of birds breeding here, other than woodpeckers, use tree cavities as nest sites. Chickadees, nuthatches, flycatchers, swallows, bluebirds, other bird species and some mammals all use the cavities woodpeckers create.

Incidentally, drumming by woodpeckers establishes territory, attracts mates and keeps mating rivals away. Pounding on your house can resonate in an irresistible way.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.