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London area woodpeckers are easy to learn

All seven of the London-area woodpeckers are interesting, but the Pileated Woodpecker is the easiest to identify. It is by far the largest and its red crest is striking. Look for this bird at Westminster Ponds in south London. Photo by Paul Nicholson

Of more than 200 woodpecker species around the world, there are seven that can be seen reliably in London and Southwestern Ontario.

Not surprisingly, there is a range of traits that our woodpeckers have in common. They have very strong feet with two toes facing forward and two facing back. This allows these birds to grip and scale tree trunks well as they forage for food or excavate nesting cavities. The tails of our seven woodpeckers are also special in that the feathers are stiff. This feature helps to stabilize the birds as they drill into trees. Woodpeckers’ beaks are stronger than most other birds’ beaks, and they have tongues that are particularly long and sticky.

With all of its drilling, it would be easy to imagine that a woodpecker would have a perpetual migraine, but the anatomy of the beak and head absorbs the mechanical stress that the bird endures. For example, this family of birds have a relatively small, smooth, and tightly-fitted brain. Also, a woodpecker’s skull is strong yet at the same time somewhat spongey.

Downy Woodpeckers can be seen in London in all twelve months of the year. They are our smallest woodpeckers. These common birds have a white patch on their back, and black and white plumage elsewhere. Adult males have a red patch at the back of the head. The Downy’s bill is short.

Our Hairy Woodpeckers are often mistaken for Downies. They too are in London year-round, and the plumage is almost identical. Hairy Woodpeckers are about one third larger than Downies, but the easiest way to identify a Hairy is to focus on the beak. It is relatively big.

Another woodpecker that is seen in London all year is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. You might well hear this bird’s churr call before you see it. Strangely, Red-bellied Woodpeckers’ bellies aren’t often very red. Key in on the birds’ black and white patterned back and red plumage on the nape of females and red plumage from the nape to the crown on adult males.

Northern Flickers are a bit larger than Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and instead of a black and white back, the Flicker has a black and brown back. Flickers have some red at their nape. Males have a black moustache. Unlike our six other woodpeckers, Flickers will often feed on ants and other insects on the ground. Many Flickers migrate south in late fall and return in early spring.

Pileated Woodpeckers will make any birder stop in their tracks. At 40 cm in length, these are large birds. When flying, they resemble pterodactyls. This bird is named for its distinctive red crest. Adult male Pileateds have a red moustache. They can be seen in all seasons.

Your best bet for seeing Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in London is during the spring and fall migration seasons. Watch in particular for the band of white at the front of the wing on a perched bird. There is a red patch on the bird’s crown. Adult males also have a red throat.

The visually striking Red-headed Woodpecker can be seen in Middlesex County. It is seen year-round at Pinery Provincial Park. The adult of this species looks like the whole head has been dipped in a bucket of red paint. The rest of the bird is large patches of black and white.

To learn more about our seven woodpecker species you can view a three-minute Southwestern Ontario Woodpeckers video on YouTube.

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