Woodpeckers are a family of birds that have uniquely adapted when it comes to finding food. All members of this group have a strong, reinforced skull that protects their brain from drilling into trees with their specialized beak. They do this in search of food as well as to create holes for nesting and communicate with other members of their species. They also possess a long, barbed, and usually sticky tongue that’s used to grip and pull insects into their waiting mouth.
In this article we’re focusing on the species of woodpeckers found in a certain New England state, New Jersey. There are seven species of woodpeckers in New Jersey that we’re going to look at, keep reading to see what they are and learn a little bit about each one.
7 Species of Woodpecker in New Jersey
1. Downy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides pubescens
- Height: 5.5-7.1 inches
- Weight: 0.74-0.99 ounces
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of woodpeckers in New Jersey. It’s found throughout the state, and has adapted relatively well to human presence. It gets its name from the soft texture on its back, which is how it’s earned the affectionate nickname “Downy”. They have a distinctive black and white striping pattern with strong bars of light and dark on the wings and a broad white stripe down their back. The males and females have slightly different patterns, with the males having a bright red dot at the nape of the neck.
It spends the majority of its time clinging to the trunks and branches of trees. Like most woodpeckers, they have specialized feet, called zygodactyl feet, that have two toes facing forwards and two facing backwards. These feet allow them to cling to the side of a tree when in search of insects. Their smaller size also comes in handy when foraging for various nuts and berries, as they’re able to crawl all the way out to the tips of smaller branches that other woodpeckers are too heavy to access.
2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides villosus
- Height: 9-9.5 inches
- Weight: 0.74-0.99 ounces
At first glance, the Hairy Woodpecker heavily resembles the Downy, as both have similar patterns of black and white stripes with a red dot on the nape, but they’re two separate species! It certainly doesn’t help that they occupy similar areas throughout New Jersey, but there are a few key differences.
The Hairy Woodpecker has all-white tail feathers and a larger beak, making it a unique challenge for new bird watchers. It’s most commonly found in more mature forests with older tree growth, consuming mostly insects but supplementing plant matter in their diet as well.
This woodpecker coexists well with other species of the family, and actually uses them to its advantage. They’ve been known to follow the loud drumming of Pileated Woodpeckers in search of easy food. When the Pileated Woodpecker leaves, the Hairy Woodpecker will investigate the deep holes left behind and snag any insects that may have been missed.
They’ll also follow along the routes of Sapsuckers in search for more easily accessible food. It’s believed that they have a sweet tooth, as they’ve been seen pecking at the sap left behind by the Sapsucker as well as being known for boring holes in sugar cane in search of the sweet juice.
3. Northern Flicker
- Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
- Height: 7-15 inches
- Weight: 4.2 ounces
The Northern Flicker can be found year found in New Jersey, although the birds that are seen in the winter aren’t the same that are seen in the spring and summer. The summer birds head south for the winter, and the state’s winter birds summer further north. They’re most often found on lawns searching for ants. When flying, you can see a flash of yellow from their underwings. It lives primarily in many built-up areas, making it also a common sight at bird feeders and local favorites.
This woodpecker primarily eats insects such as ants and grubs, but will commonly consume seeds and berries when they’re available. If you happen to see a bird walking vertically up a tree trunk, it’s most likely to be a Northern Flicker. Along with the zygodactyl feet that allow it to grip, it also has stiff, pointed tail feathers that protrude at just the right angle to serve as a balance prop. It’s also one of only 3 woodpecker species that migrates.
4. Pileated Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus
- Height: 16-19 inches
- Weight: 8.8-14 ounces
The Pileated Woodpecker has a loud, raucous call that’s been described as nearly prehistoric, and can be heard miles away. Despite the noise, this bird is shy and not often seen despite being almost instantly identifiable with a bright red crest. They’re relatively rare throughout New Jersey, making them a rare and unique treat for local birdwatchers.
If you have one of these woodpeckers in your lawn, you’ll most likely know it. This bird is most known for the large, rectangular holes left behind in the trees as it searches for its favorite food – carpenter ants.
Pileated Woodpeckers are actually the largest of the woodpeckers in New Jersey, as well as in all of North America. The holes they create also provide a great source of food for many birds, not just those of its species. It has a distinctive drumming sound that attracts those other birds, like the Hairy Woodpecker, that slows down, speeds up, and then slows down again.
Unlike the common misconception that this bird drills into live trees, it actually prefers to hammer into dead and decaying logs with softer bark in search of termites and ants. This species has slowly been moving in closer to parks and woodlots around the edges of large cities as humans have encroached on their territory. Even though they’re currently scarce in New Jersey, their numbers are on the rise and there are more and more sightings each year.
5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Scientific name: Sphyrapicus various
- Height: 7.5-8.3
- Weight: 1.6 ounces
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker used to be prominent in the area, but human deforestation and use of pesticides has caused their numbers to dwindle. There is currently a large colony that’s spread in to Sussex County’s Stokes State Forest, and conservation efforts are being made to keep this bird in New Jersey. It’s a relatively loud and noisy woodpecker, with cat-like calls and staccato drumming they perform on tree trunks.
As the name suggests, the Sapsucker will drill small holes in the tree bark, usually in neatly spaced rows, and allow the sap to drip out. It will return periodically to these sap wells to peck at the sweet sap, and this also serves as an attractor for multiple insect species such as ants. They’ll still glean insects from the tree trunk in a more traditional woodpecker fashion – drilling and pulling out insects with a sticky tongue – but they aren’t restricted to it.
6. Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
- Height: 9-10.5 inches
- Weight: 2.2 ounces
The Red-bellied Woodpecker used to be abundant throughout the northeast, but has dwindled since the clearing of forests in the 1860s. They’ve been seen nesting throughout all of New Jersey. Their name is a slight misnomer, as it’s only during the breeding season that it possesses a reddish blush on its belly. The rest of the year, it remains gray. The true most prominent patch of red year-round on this bird is on its head and nape. They make a wide variety of sounds, including trills, chuckles, and steady drumming on trees to communicate.
Like most woodpeckers, this bird has a tongue with a barbed tip that’s covered in sticky spit that’s specially adapted to slipping into crevices made in tree bark in search of food. Males actually have a longer and wider-tipped tongue than the females, presumably because this would provide an advantage to coupled pairs.
Each individual would be able to forage in slightly different places within their territory, which in turn maximizes how much food they can gather. Eventually, this leads to stronger chicks that will also display this dimorphism.
7. Red-headed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
- Height: 7.5-9.8 inches
- Weight: 2-3.4 ounces
The Red-headed Woodpecker is especially beloved in New Jersey. Their image can be seen adorning many conservation license plates, and they’ve been protected by the state for years. It breeds erratically within the state, and it happens infrequently enough that it’s considered a major event for local birdwatchers. The adults have striking red heads that they develop after adolescence. Before this plumage comes in, the immature juveniles have brown heads and are much more dull and camouflaged.
This woodpecker has a slightly different method for catching food. While it does still drill for insects, it also has the ability to catch insects mid-flight and will store food in cracks and crevices. They’ve even been known to wedge live grasshoppers into these sections, keeping them stored away for a later meal and occasionally covering them with bark or leaves. They’re boldly patterned, easily identifiable, and very active.
Open pine plantations, tree rows in agricultural areas, and standing timber in beaver swamps and other wetlands all attract Red-headed Woodpeckers. They’re fiercely defensive of this territory once they move in, even removing the eggs of other species from nests and going so far as to puncture duck eggs. Because of this action, the Red-headed Woodpecker was used as the Cherokee Indian war symbol for centuries.