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Downy WoodpeckerDowny Woodpecker

By Matthew R. March, MNRD
Polk County Extension Agent

The forests of East Texas and woodpeckers go together naturally. We are blessed with a high diversity of woodpecker species here in both Polk County and East Texas as a result of the mosaic of hardwood and pine forests. East Texas is home to nine of the 16 species of woodpeckers that have been recorded in Texas. Of those nine woodpeckers, two are endangered and one is considered extirpated in Texas. Identifying woodpeckers is easy and can add to your enjoyment while watching a woodpecker drill a hole.

You can roughly divide woodpeckers into three groups. The first is small to medium size woodpeckers that have white and black barring on wings and back, but does not have a head or crown that is predominately red. This group includes Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and Red Cockaded Woodpecker. The Yellow Bellied Sapsucker and Red Cockaded Woodpecker have solid barring on the back, while Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker have a white stripe down the middle of the back. Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker are very similar, and the easiest difference is the Hairy Woodpecker is approximately 2.5 inches bigger. Yellow Bellied Sapsucker is the only species of woodpecker in East Texas that cannot be seen year-round and is just present during the winter.  All the above species are common except for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker which is found in old growth savannah pine forest which has disappeared across much of East Texas. Because of habitat loss and decreasing numbers, Red Cockaded Woodpecker has been on the endangered species list since 1970. However, the future is looking bright for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker as habitat restoration and protection has caused numbers to increase since 1970.

The second group of woodpeckers are medium size and include Red Bellied Woodpecker, Red Headed Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. These species are common to abundant and can be found in many forest types and in open areas of cities, yards and parks. Red Bellied Woodpecker has a white and black barring on back and wings with a red crown that goes from beak to barring on back. Red Headed Woodpecker has a solid red head and neck with a solid black then white back. Northern Flicker is a brownish woodpecker with a white rump and flashes of yellow in wings and tail. Northern Flicker can also be seen foraging on the ground.

The last group includes two large woodpecker species that are easily recognizable. The first is Pileated Woodpecker which is crow size with a black back with a prominent red crest. Pileated Woodpecker prefers extensive forests with mature trees. The other species is the endangered Ivory Billed Woodpecker which is similar in appearance to the Pileated Woodpecker except it has white lines down back. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker requires very large extensive stands of mature hardwood forest. Due to habitat loss the bird no longer lives in Texas and was believed to be extinct across the south for over 60 years until possible sightings in Southern Arkansas in 2004.

We are blessed with a high diversity of woodpeckers here in East Texas. But to ensure their continue survival their habitat must be managed to encourage older trees and snags for feeding and nesting. If not, more woodpecker species may follow the same path as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

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