Montana is known for its arid grasslands, sprawling prairies, and mountains providing habitat for over 250 species of birds. The state’s wildlife refuges and nature trails offer enthusiasts an array of options for birding. Some good hotspots include the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Glacier National Park, and the Montana Birding trail.
In this article, we take a look at the woodpeckers of Montana. There are ten species of woodpeckers to look out for.
Woodpeckers are grouped with wrynecks, sapsuckers, and piculets. They belong to the Picidae family that also includes toucans, barbets, and honeyguides among others. Woodpeckers are known for drumming their bills on trees and other objects – behavior for which they are named.
Did you know? Woodpeckers use drumming noises to communicate. The reverberation can often be heard from miles away.
They also drill holes into trees to excavate nests and forage for insects. For these activities, woodpeckers are dependent on dead and decaying trees. They prey on many insect species attracted by dead trees and rely on the softening trunks and branches to excavate their nests. To facilitate the drumming and drilling, woodpeckers have long bills that are thick, strong, and chiseled. Their tongues are long and sticky with a bristled tip to extract insects from trees.
Fun fact: A woodpeckers’ tongue also functions as a shock absorber. The exceptionally long tongues wrap around the skull through an internal cavity, cushioning it from the blows of the drumming. The skull of a woodpecker also has special adaptations to prevent brain damage.
Woodpeckers are small to medium-sized birds. Their plumage is often bold, ranging in contrasting shades of black, white, red, brown, olive, and yellow. Many species are crested. They inhabit a wide range of woody environments, such as forests, woodlands, wooded scrublands, woodlots, parks, farmlands, and residential areas. Woodpeckers are generally easy to spot in-flight as they have a distinctive undulating flight pattern characterized by a swooping glide broken by a rapid flutter.
You may also spot them in trees. Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet whereby two toes point forward and two point backward. This enables them to perch vertically on tree trunks while they go about their drilling, drumming, and foraging activities. Some species have three toes, such as the American three-toed woodpecker.
Let’s learn about the woodpeckers you may encounter in Montana.
Species Of Woodpeckers In Montana:
1. Downy Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Dryobates pubescens
- Lifespan – 2 years (average) 11 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 6.3 in
- Weight – 0.9 oz
- Wingspan – 11 in
The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker species in North America and also the most abundant. Its plumage is pied black and white. It has a black head with two white bars on either side. Its wings are black with white spots, and it has a white back and white underparts. The male has a red patch on the head. Juveniles have a red cap.
Downy woodpeckers are agile little birds often seen scurrying about. They are very similar in appearance to the hairy woodpecker. The most common call of the downy woodpecker is a short, sharp, four-note pik. Its non-vocal drumming is somewhat slower than other woodpecker species.
Downy woodpeckers inhabit deciduous forests, open woodlands, and brushy woodland edges. They occur year-round in Montana. Look for them in deciduous trees in open woodlands, orchards, parks, fields, and suburban backyards. They are known to frequent bird feeders during winter and can often be seen among mixed-species flocks.
Insects make up most of their diet, but they also eat plant foods such as seeds, grains, berries, and nuts. They forage trees both on the surface and by drilling beneath. Typical insect prey of the downy woodpecker includes ants, caterpillars, and beetle larvae. The downy woodpecker is a natural predator of many agricultural pests such as corn borers, bark, and apple borers. Populations of downy woodpeckers are stable. They are resilient against deforestation as they are able to thrive in young forests.
2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Leuconotopicus villosus
- Lifespan – 15 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 8.6 in
- Weight – 2.4 oz
- Wingspan – 14.5 in
- Status – Least concern
The hairy woodpecker is easily mistaken with the downy woodpecker, even though the hairy woodpecker is larger with a longer bill, it can be difficult to distinguish. A good tip is to look at the outer tail feather which is spotted in the downy woodpecker and plain white in the hairy woodpecker.
The plumage and size of hairy woodpeckers vary across subspecies. Birds in the northern regions are typically larger. The coloration of the underparts ranges from white to dirty-brown, and eastern subspecies have thicker facial stripes and are spottier than those in the far west. The common call of the hairy woodpecker is a sharp, low-pitched peek. They also produce a rattling whinny.
Hairy woodpeckers mostly eat insects. They are important predators of notorious pests such as bark beetles, corn borers, and crop-destroying moths, significantly curbing infestations. Hairy woodpeckers also eat ants, bees, wasps, spiders, and other arthropods. A small portion of their diet is made up of plant foods such as seeds and berries. Hairy woodpeckers inhabit mature deciduous forests, forest edges, plantations, and open woodlands. They can be found year-round in Montana.
Look for them in woodlots, parks, cemeteries, recently burned forests, and decaying stands as these attract multitudes of bark beetles drawing in hairy woodpeckers by the droves. They sometimes occur in suburban areas and occasionally visit backyard feeders. It is a widespread and thriving species. However, forest fragmentation may pose a threat in the future. They also face competition with European starlings for nesting sites.
3. Pileated Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Dryocopus pileatus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 17,5 in
- Weight – 11 oz
- Wingspan – 28 in
The pileated woodpecker is a large and distinctive species. It is one of the largest species of woodpeckers in North America. Its plumage is mostly black with white stripes extending from the face down either side of the throat and a dark red crest. Males have a red stripe running down the throat.
Pileated woodpeckers inhabit large tracts of mature forests, particularly hardwoods, deciduous and mixed woodlands, woodlots, and parks with ample large trees. They are most prevalent in western Montana, where they occur year-round. Look for them in reforested areas and young forests, especially those with a fair amount of large, dead trees. They can also be seen in woody suburban areas.
Pileated woodpeckers are important predators of carpenter ants. They also prey on other ants, termites, wood-boring beetle larvae, flies, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. Plant foods they eat include seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries.
Did you know? Woodpeckers, such as the pileated woodpecker enjoy berries that are poisonous to other animals such as those of poison ivy.
The pileated woodpecker is a widespread and thriving species owing to its ability to survive in a wide range of wooded habitats, including around human habitations. They do, however, face competition for nesting sites with other species, such as European starlings, bluebirds, and other woodpeckers.
4. Northern Flicker
- Scientific name – Colaptes auratus
- Lifespan – 9 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 12.5 in (32 cm)
- Weight – 4.4 oz (126.5 g)
- Wingspan – 19 in (48 cm)
The northern flicker, also known as the common flicker, is a medium-sized bird. It falls under the Colaptes genus in the woodpecker family. Overall, it is brown above with black bars and beige below with black spots and a distinctive black crescent shape on the upper breast. It has a white rump visible in flight. The underwings and undertail are golden yellow (in western birds, they are red). Males have red stripes extending outwards from the base of the bill resembling a mustache.
The northern flicker produces a cackle-like ki ki ki call. They inhabit woodlands and forest edges. They also occur around wetlands, swamps, marshes, and open fields with large, scattered trees. Unusual of woodpeckers, the northern flicker often nests in holes excavated by other birds. They can also be found year-round in the region. Find them in open woodlands, forest edges, and suburban areas.
Northern flickers mainly feed on insects, particularly beetles, ants, and ant larvae they forage on the ground or drill for underground. They also eat plant materials such as seeds, fruit, and berries, including the berries of poison ivy and poison oak. Although they are widespread, populations of northern flickers are on the decline primarily due to habitat loss.
5. Red-Headed Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Melanerpes carolinus
- Lifespan – 3 years (average) 9 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 8.6 in (22 cm)
- Weight – 2.7 oz (76 g)
- Wingspan – 16.7 in (42.5 cm)
- Status – Least concern
This striking red-headed woodpecker is closely related to the red-bellied woodpecker. It is a medium-sized bird with a boldly contrasting plumage of black, white, and red. Its back and wings are black, with white secondary feathers, and it is snow-white below. It has a dark red head and neck for which it is named. Males and females are alike, and juveniles have a grey head instead of red.
Red-headed woodpeckers breed in deciduous woodlands, farmlands, orchards, wooded grasslands, and forest edges. They also make use of destroyed habitats such as burned areas and deforested clearings. During winter, they inhabit deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests. They can be spotted in eastern Montana during spring and summer in woodlots, open areas with suitable trees, agricultural areas, and forest plantations. Listen for their call, which is a high-pitched, shrill tchur. They also frequent garden bird feeders.
Red-headed woodpeckers consume a large number of plant foods. They forage on the ground and in trees for seeds, nuts, and fruits. They also eat insects and are adept at catching them in flight. Occasionally, they may also take rodents and the eggs of other birds.
Did you know? Red-headed woodpeckers are known to store food for later consumption. They cache nuts and seeds and even shove insects in cracks and crevices. They cover their stashes with pieces of bark.
Population numbers of red-headed woodpeckers have declined drastically due to habitat loss, inadequate nesting sites, and low food supply. They were listed as “near-threatened” but have been re-classified as “least concern” following habitat management initiatives that helped stabilize the overall population.
6. Red-Naped Sapsucker
- Scientific name – Sphyrapicus nuchalis
- Lifespan – 4 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 7.9 in (20 cm)
- Weight – 1.7 oz (49 g)
- Wingspan – 16.5 in (42 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The red-naped sapsucker was once believed to be a subspecies of the yellow-bellied sapsucker but was later found to be a separate species. It is a medium-sized woodpecker with a black head, red forehead, white stripes, and a prominent red spot on the nape for which it is named. It has a black back and wings with white bars and a yellow breast and upper belly. Males have a red throat patch. In females, this is white above and red below.
Red-naped sapsuckers occur in the western parts of Montana. They breed in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin region and migrate south of their breeding range for the winter. During the breeding season, they inhabit deciduous, evergreen forests and forest edges, parks, and even gardens. During winter, they occur in a wider range of habitats, including mixed forests. The primary food source of the red-naped sapsucker is tree sap. They also eat insects and fruit. They are common throughout their range, and populations are stable.
7. Black-Backed Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Picoides arcticus
- Lifespan – 8 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 9.1 in (23 cm)
- Weight – 2.6 oz (74.5 g)
- Wingspan – 16 in (41 cm)
- Status – Least concern
As the name suggests, it has a black back, head, and wings. They are white below with black bars on the flanks. The male bears a prominent yellow cap. A unique feature of the black-backed woodpecker is its three-toed feet.
Black-backed woodpeckers inhabit coniferous forests in the north and west of the country. They thrive in recently burned forests and other habitats with abundant dead trees and beetle outbreaks. They occur year-round in the west of Montana. The best chance of spotting them would be in a recently burned forest with large trees.
Black-headed woodpeckers are specialist feeders of wood-boring beetles. They forage on the trunks and branches of burned trees or on fallen, decaying logs. This species is not common in Montana, but overall populations are stable. They are, however, vulnerable to habitat destruction by logging and fire suppression practices.
8. American Three-Toed Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Picoides dorsalis
- Lifespan – 6 years
- Size – 8.3 in
- Weight – 1.9 oz
- Wingspan – 15 in
- Status – Least concern
As the name suggests, this woodpecker has only three toes and closely resembles other three-toed species such as the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker and the black-backed woodpecker. It has a pied plumage that is above and white below with barring throughout its plumage. It has an extended white supercilium and cheek stripes. The male has a yellow cap.
They typically breed in boreal and mountain old-growth coniferous forests, especially those with spruce beetle infestations. The Rocky Mountain forests make for excellent breeding habitat. The best bet to find this elusive species would be in forests that have been damaged by fire, floods, storms, or other disturbances. Look for the among dead, decaying trees, and look out for beetle outbreaks. The nest cavity is usually excavated in the lower trunks of dead conifers and lined with wood chips.
They mainly feed on insects, especially beetle larvae. They also eat fruit and lap up sap from trees by drilling sap wells. They forage for insects on the trunks of decaying trees by flaking off the bark leaving behind a tell-tale patchy appearance – another good indicator that they may be around. Although uncommon in Montana, their overall population appears to have increased. They are, however, threatened by indirect pesticide poisoning, forest fragmentation, the destruction of mature forests, and fire control measures.
9. Williamson’s Sapsucker
- Scientific name – Sphyrapicus thyroideus
- Lifespan – Unknown
- Size – 9 in
- Weight – 1.8 oz
- Wingspan – 17 in
- Status – Least concern
This is a medium-sized woodpecker of the open forest. The male has an iridescent black plumage with a bright yellow belly, a red chin, white facial stripes, and large, white wing patches. The female has a brown head with black streaks and a barred plumage.
Fun fact: The Williamson’s sapsucker was named after army colonel Lieutenant Robert Williamson, who led the expedition that collected the first male.
These birds inhabit open, mature coniferous, and mixed forests at high elevations. They also occur in the west, breeding in the Rocky Mountains. Listen for their erratic drumming as they mark their territories and the unusual raptor-like call.
They often nest in old, large trees with heart rot, excavating a new nest each year, sometimes on the same tree. Pay attention to conifers with rings of little holes. These lead to the wells through which they extract sap. They also eat a large number of insects during the breeding season, foraging for them along tree trunks. In winter, they may supplement their diet with seeds and berries. Although the global population is stable, this species seems to be declining in parts of its range due to habitat loss, particularly the destruction of mature forests.
10. Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Melanerpes lewis
- Lifespan – 3 years (average) 10 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 10.6 in
- Weight – 4 oz
- Wingspan – 19.9 in
- Status – Least concern
The Lewis’s woodpecker is one of the largest species of woodpeckers in America. It has a greenish-black plumage with a red face, lower breast, and belly. It has a gray collar and upper breast. They breed in open coniferous forests and woodlands near streams. During winter, they move in nomadic flocks following resources.
They can be found in the west and south of Montana during the breeding season. Look for them in ponderosa pine forests, especially those with fire damage. The nest is usually in a lead branch, but they often use nests excavated by other woodpeckers. They have large wings and an unusual, sluggish crow-like flight. The call is rather harsh and distinctive, but they are not very vocal. They often feed in flocks which is unusual for woodpeckers.
They bore into trees to forage for insects but also catch them in flight. They also eat nuts and berries and may visit backyard feeders. Lewis’s woodpeckers are known to store food in the crevices of trees for the winter. This species population is in decline due to fire suppression, climate change, and the logging of forests.
Woodpeckers are interesting birds that many enjoy observing and welcome in backyard feeders. They are fascinating birds known for their drumming of tree trunks and various other objects. Woodpeckers are of great economic importance as they control destructive pest species that cause agricultural damages worth millions of dollars each year. They are also of vital ecological importance as the nests they excavate are used by many other species.
They are, however, are sometimes viewed unfavorably by humans as they may cause damage to buildings and infrastructure by drilling holes. They are also unwelcomed among fruit farmers even though their beneficial pest-control functions may outweigh the damage done by crop-raiding. Most woodpecker species are stable as they are generally adaptable, with many species adapting well to human-altered environments such as woodlots, plantations, farmlands, and even residential areas.
Nonetheless, woodpeckers are dependent on forests and woodlands and are thus heavily impacted by deforestation. They also rely on the presence of dead trees for nesting. In some areas, there is a high level of competition for dead and decaying trees for nesting sites. Some species can also be negatively affected by fire suppression practices and fire impact control measures. The main conservation threat to woodpeckers, however, is habitat loss primarily due to logging and deforestation.
It is clear that woodpeckers are valuable species, both economically and ecologically. They also add a touch of wonder to our lives. To attract woodpeckers to your garden, make sure that your backyard feeders are stocked with plenty of fresh fruit, nuts, and suet, especially during the winter. And you are sure to be visited by some of these delightful birds.