Exploring the 11 Woodpeckers of Michigan

George Michael
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Woodpeckers of Michigan tap, drum, and drill their way through diverse habitats, adding vibrant life to the state’s forests. The woodpeckers stand out as remarkable and recognizable birds among the numerous avian species that grace Michigan’s skies and forests. These skillful drummers, often identified by their hammering sounds echoing through the woods, are vital to the state’s ecosystem.

This detailed guide delves into the fascinating world of woodpeckers found in Michigan, sharing insights into 11 distinct species. Whether you’re an avid birder, a nature lover, or a curious local, this exploration will deepen your appreciation for Michigan’s woodpeckers. It may inspire you to grab your binoculars and head out for an adventure in the natural beauty of the state.

Where To Find Woodpeckers in Michigan

Before we spotlight each woodpecker species, let’s touch on the locations where you can spot these birds best. Michigan’s vast land offers a range of environments, from dense forests to marshlands and suburbs, providing a varied backdrop for woodpecker watching.

Northern Michigan

The dense boreal forests in the Upper Peninsula are ideal for species like the Black-backed, American Three-toed, and Northern (Arctic) Three-toed woodpeckers. Meanwhile, the migratory Red-headed and Lewis’s woodpeckers can be found near the edges of the Great Lakes or in the extensive woodlands.

Southern Michigan

Crisp woodlands and suburban areas in the southern part of the state harbor a rich population of Pileated and Red-bellied woodpeckers. These areas can be more accessible for day-trip birdwatching and are home to more residential woodpecker species.

Bearing these pointers in mind, let’s take a closer look at Michigan’s especially interesting woodpeckers.

A comparison table for the 11 woodpeckers of Michigan

Woodpecker SpeciesSizePlumageHabitatForaging BehaviorDistribution
Downy WoodpeckerSmallestBlack-and-whiteDeciduous and mixed forestsForages on insects, identified by soft “pik” callYear-round resident, widespread throughout Michigan
Hairy WoodpeckerLarger than DownyBlack-and-whiteSimilar to Downy, prefers larger branches and trunksSimilar foraging behavior to Downy, larger billYear-round resident, widespread throughout Michigan
Red-headed WoodpeckerMediumBlack back and wings, white belly, red headVarious habitats, skilled at catching insects on the wingCatches acorns, stores them in hiding placesYear-round resident, often found near Great Lakes and woodlands
Pileated WoodpeckerLargestRed crest, black plumageMature forests with large treesDrums loudly, drills rectangular holes for antsYear-round resident, prefers mature forests in Michigan
Northern FlickerMediumSpotted appearanceWidespread in open habitatsForages on ground for ants and beetlesYear-round resident, widespread throughout Michigan
Red-bellied WoodpeckerMediumRed cap and napeResidential areas, feeds on fruits, seeds, and insectsOften seen clinging to feeders or treesYear-round resident, commonly found in southern Michigan
Yellow-bellied SapsuckerMediumRed foreheadSummers in Michigan, winters in southern U.S.Drills small holes in trees to feed on sapMigratory, spends summers in Michigan
Black-backed WoodpeckerMediumBlack back, white bellyPine barrens, burned forestsSpecialized in finding insects under bark of dead treesYear-round resident, associated with pine barrens and burned forests
American Three-toed WoodpeckerMediumBlack-and-whiteConiferous and mixed forestsSports only three toes, prefers standing dead treesYear-round resident, primarily found in northern Michigan
Northern (Arctic) Three-toed WoodpeckerMediumBlack-and-whiteSimilar to American Three-toed, found in colder regionsClosely related to American Three-toed, less frequentPrimarily found in northernmost reaches of Michigan
Lewis’s WoodpeckerMediumPink-red belly, gray face, green iridescenceOpen forests, pine woodlandsSports unique plumage, more frequently found in western statesMigratory sightings in Michigan are possible during migrations

11 Woodpeckers of Michigan

Michigan boasts a variety of woodpecker species, each with its own unique attributes and significance. We’ll start by contrasting the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers – two frequently encountered species due to their widespread distribution and similar appearances.

1. Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
Image credit:Suefeldberge


The Downy Woodpecker, Michigan’s smallest and most common woodpecker, is a year-round resident. Its petite size and distinctive black-and-white plumage are a delight for birdwatchers. Often found in deciduous and mixed forests, these acrobatic woodpeckers feed on insects and can be identified by their soft “pik” call.

2. Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker
Image Credit: Mirceax


Resembling the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy stands out with its larger size and bill. They share similar habits and habitats, including the same call and rhythmic drumming. Their larger bill allows them to drill into wood more efficiently and are more likely to forage on larger branches and trunks.

Next, we focus on the striking Red-headed Woodpecker, known for its vibrant hues and unique behaviors.

3. Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker
Image credit: BrianLasenby


With a solid black back and wings, a stark white belly, and a fully red head, the Red-headed Woodpecker is one of Michigan’s most visually arresting birds. They are skilled at catching insects on the wing and are known for catching acorns and storing them later in crevices and other hiding places. According to Avibirds, they are usually found in the state’s north areas during summer.

4. Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker
Image credit: Harry Collins


Possibly the most iconic woodpecker, the Pileated is the largest in Michigan. Its distinctive red crest and powerful drumming can be heard from great distances. They prefer mature forests with large trees where they make rectangular holes in search of ants, a staple of their diet.

The Northern Flicker, with its unique markings and ground-feeding behavior, is another bird to look out for in Michigan.

5. Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker
Image credit: Dave Alan


The Northern Flicker is odd among woodpeckers due to its habit of foraging on the ground, seeking ants and beetles. They have a spotted appearance and come in two color morphs: the “yellow-shafted” in the east of the Rockies and the “red-shafted” in the west. They are widespread in open habitats.

Delving further, let’s observe the versatile Red-bellied Woodpecker and the sapsucker with a hint of its attribute in its name.

6. Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Image credit: Michael Parks


Contrary to its name, the red on the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly is not very noticeable. Instead, its most pronounced feature is a bright red cap and nape. They have a varied diet, including fruits, seeds, and insects, and can often be seen clinging to feeders or trees in residential areas.

7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Image credit: William Krumpelman


Named for its habit of drilling small holes in trees to feed on sap, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s ‘sapsucking wells’ can sometimes lead to rows of holes in the bark. They have a distinctive red forehead and are migratory, generally spending summers in Michigan and winters in the southern U.S.

Heading into the forests, the Black-backed Woodpecker and its significant role within the ecosystem comes into view.

8. Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker
Image credit: Frank Fitchmuller


The Black-backed Woodpecker is often associated with pine barrens and burned forests, where they are highly specialized in finding insects under the bark of dead trees. Their presence is a testament to the forest’s health and regeneration following fires, making them a species of particular interest to conservationists.

The American Three-toed Woodpecker and the rare Northern (Arctic) Three-toed Woodpecker are specialized tree foragers with unique characteristics.

9. American Three-toed Woodpecker

American Three-toed Woodpecker
Image credit: Thorstein Spoerlein


As the name suggests, the American Three-toed Woodpecker sports only three toes, giving it a distinct physiological adaptation for gripping and climbing tree trunks. Their preferred habitats include coniferous and mixed forests with standing dead trees or those dying.

10. Northern (or Arctic) Three-toed Woodpecker

Northern (or Arctic) Three-toed Woodpecker
Image credit: Warren Srigley


Closely related to the American Three-toed, the Northern Three-toed Woodpecker is primarily found in the northernmost reaches of Michigan or times when cold weather pushes them southward. While similar in behavior and appearance, their distribution and less frequent encounters make them a prized find for dedicated birders.

Finally, the less common Lewis’s Woodpecker, named after Meriwether Lewis, completes our comprehensive list.

11. Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker
Image credit: Annette Shaff


Named after the famed explorer who first documented the species, Lewis’s Woodpecker sports a unique plumage with a pink-red belly, a gray face, and green iridescence on its back. It prefers open forests, particularly pine woodlands, and is more frequently found in the western states, yet migrations make sightings in Michigan possible.

Embracing Michigan’s Woodpecker Diversity

Michigan’s expansive woodlands would not be the same without the rhythmic tapping, distinctive calls, and bright flashes of color provided by its woodpecker residents. Whether you venture into the heart of the Upper Peninsula or watch from your backyard feeder, Michigan’s woodpeckers offer a rich tapestry to the state’s natural heritage.

Each woodpecker species has a role to play in the delicate balance of Michigan’s ecosystems, from seed dispersal to controlling insect populations and even influencing forest regeneration. As you observe these birds, consider the significance of their presence and the impact of conservation efforts.

Remember that the joy of birdwatching comes with a responsibility to respect nature and wildlife. Carry out your birdwatching activities in a way that minimizes disturbances to the birds and their habitats.

So grab your field guide, camera, and sense of wonder, and explore the woodpeckers that make Michigan their home. Your encounters with these fascinating birds can enrich your understanding of nature and contribute to important conservation narratives across the state and beyond.


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