Woodpeckers are unique from other birds in that, as their name suggests, they obtain their food primarily by pecking a hole in a tree trunk, then using their barbed tongues or adhesive saliva to pull the insects out. Although this method of catching prey is unique to woodpeckers, their appearances are not. Many woodpeckers can share a very similar look.
In this article, we’ll be going over 12 different bird and woodpecker species that, through a variety of ways, have resulted in appearances that mimic those of other woodpeckers (especially the downy woodpecker, one of the most commonly found species in the wild).
1. Northern Flicker
Scientific Name: Colaptes auratus
Range: North and Central America (from Alaska to Nicaragua)
The northern flicker is a bird of the woodpecker family, which features an overall brown plumage covered in black streaks and spots, a slightly curved down bill, a long tail that tapers to a point, and bright yellow underside feathers.
Because they tend to make their nests inside tree holes, the northern flickers can be found wherever trees are present such as in yards, parks, and woodlands. Unlike the typical woodpecker, the northern flicker eats mainly ants and beetles by digging for them in the ground with their slightly curved bill.
Several similarities between the northern flicker and the woodpecker (especially the downy woodpecker) include the fact that both have a large red spot on the back of their head, both have streaks and spots across their body, and both have small, black beady eyes. They are also of a similar size.
Differences between the northern flicker and the downy woodpecker include the fact that northern flickers have larger and curvier bills than downy woodpeckers and that their underparts are more of a greyish color with black streaks than the purely white color of the downy woodpecker.
2. Red-Breasted Sapsucker
Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus ruber
Range: Western Coast of North America (migrates to as far South as northern Baja)
The red-breasted sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that has a bright plumage consisting of a red head and breast, a bold white slash on the shoulder, and, for some individuals, a slight black and white pattern on the head as well.
Juveniles are more of a shade of brown on both the head and breast. This bird dwells primarily in coniferous and mixed forests, which descend closer to the ground in the winter. Characteristically of sapsuckers, the red-breasted sapsucker also drills holes in tree bark to feed on sap.
Both upper and lower parts of the red-breasted sapsucker resemble that of the downy woodpecker. Both are of a similar size, have a red throat, similar-looking legs, and white spots on their wings.
Though both have red plumage on their heads, the downy woodpeckers have only a red spot, while red-breasted sapsuckers have their entire head covered in red. The biggest difference, however, is the fact that, as their name suggests, the red-breasted sapsuckers have their breasts red as well, while the downy woodpeckers have white breasts.
3. Red-Naped Sapsucker
Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus nuchalis
Range: Western North America and Central America
The red-naped sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that has a red plumage on its head and throat and, despite its name, only a small patch on its nape. The head pattern is what separates it from the previously discussed red-breasted sapsucker. Its habitat typically consists of aspens and willows in a mountainous forest.
Similar to the red-breasted sapsucker, the Red-naped sapsucker also drills holes in tree bark for sap and will descend to a lower elevation and migrate south to central Mexico during the wintertime.
Like nearly all woodpeckers, the Red-naped sapsucker also drums on trees in an irregular pattern to extract sap. Also, like the downy woodpecker, the Red-naped sapsucker has a red spot on its head, as well as a similar bill and small white spots on its wings.
Though the neck of the Red-naped sapsucker is red, the neck of the downy woodpecker is white. This also extends to the underparts as the underpart of the downy woodpecker is of a brighter white color than that of the red-naped sapsucker.
The biggest difference, however, is arguable that the Red-naped sapsucker is overall quite a bit smaller than the downy woodpecker, something that’s easy to pick up on at first sight.
4. Williamson’s Sapsucker
Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus thyroideus
Range: Western North America (migrates to as far South as northern Baja)
The Williamson’s sapsucker is a bright patterned woodpecker that is almost completely black except for white wing patches. This bird displays clear sexual dimorphism in that the male has black plumage with two white stripes on its head while the female has a brown plumage and also has a much more intricate black and white barring on its body.
Similar to the sapsuckers previously discussed, the Williamson’s sapsucker also moves to lower elevations in mountainous forests and migrates south during wintertime.
The biggest similarity between Williamson’s sapsucker and the downy woodpecker is the fact that both feature a black plumage on the dorsal side and a white plumage on the ventral. Besides this, they both also possess the same irises and white spots on their wings.
The differences are minor between the two species in that the Williamson’s sapsucker has a small red patch under its bill while the Downy woodpecker has it above their head. The white patches on the sapsucker’s face are also thinner than those on the downy woodpecker.
5. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus varius
Range: Majority in the Eastern United States and across Canada (migrates as far South as Costa Rica)
The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a long, bright white wing patch, with the males having a red cap and throat while the females have a white-colored throat. Interestingly, the namesake yellow belly can be almost nonexistent in some individuals. As the only sapsucker endemic to the eastern United States, this species tends to live in almost any wooded habitat.
Similarities between the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the downy woodpecker include the fact that they both have small, beady eyes and white patches on their wings. Their bills are also quite similar.
Probably the biggest trait that distinguishes the two species is the long white wing patch that is unique to the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Of course, this species also has a yellow chest, while the downy woodpecker’s chest is completely white; however, this can be difficult to see. Finally, this species also has a red throat, while the downy woodpecker has a white one.
6. Hairy Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryobates villosus
Range: Across North America and extends to western Panama
The hairy woodpecker is a medium-sized woodpecker that has a black and white plumage similar to the downy woodpecker, along with clean, white outer tail feathers and a long bill.
The individuals in western North America and Central America are more brownish with a lesser degree of white in the wing. This species lives in large wooded areas with plenty of trees but also enjoys the occasional visit to backyard feeders, where they tend to feed on suet.
As already mentioned, both this species and the downy woodpecker have black and white plumage, along with a completely dark tail, sturdy bills, and white throats. Also similar to the downy woodpecker is the fact that males have red plumage on their heads while females don’t.
Besides the longer bill that sets the hairy woodpecker apart from their downy counterparts, another difference is the size in that this species is about 4 inches longer on average.
7. Great-Spotted Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dendrocopos major
Range: Most of Europe with a few occurrences across Asia
The great spotted woodpecker is a black and white woodpecker that has distinctive white shoulder patches, red plumage on the vent, and a black crown. Males have a red nape in addition.
They are so widespread because they can make almost any wooded area their habitat, including forests, parkland, gardens, and farmlands. Similar to the hairy woodpecker, the great-spotted woodpecker also tends to visit feeders along with the usual trunks and branches.
This woodpecker and the downy woodpecker have a small red spot on the back of their heads (though for this woodpecker, it’s exclusive to males). Both also have long tails, white spots on their wings, and small beady irises.
Probably the biggest difference between the two species, as well as the trait that sets the great-spotted woodpecker apart, is the bright white shoulder patches. In addition to this, the great-spotted woodpecker is overall larger, has a larger bill, and has red plumage in the undertail covert (white for downy woodpeckers).
8. Red-Headed Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
Range: Midwest to the Eastern United States
The red-headed woodpecker is a vibrant bird with a red plumage-covered head, a large bill, a black back with white wing patches, and a white underside. Unlike many other woodpeckers, this species prefers open country or clearings in the woods instead of unbroken forests.
Its diet is very wide, including, but not limited to, insects, worms, arthropods, nuts, seeds, and berries. Due to a possible loss of nesting sites, the red-headed woodpecker population has been decreasing for several years.
Similarities between this species and the downy woodpecker include the fact that both have white underparts, small rounded irises, white wing patches, bail tails, and red plumage on their heads.
Unlike the downy woodpecker, the red-headed woodpecker lacks the white stripes on their face. Also, while the downy woodpecker only has a red spot on its nape, the red-headed woodpecker features a completely red plumaged head.
9. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes carolinus
Range: Midwest to the Eastern United States, with a few occurrences in Canada
The red-bellied woodpecker is a medium-sized woodpecker that, despite its name, has a slight red coloration on its belly that is barely visible. Instead, focus on the back and wings, which consist of black and white barring, the white breast and face, as well as the red nape (the red extends to the crown in the case of males).
Typical of many other woodpeckers, this species is typically found in forested and suburban areas, in which it prefers deciduous trees. It also visits feeders for suet.
Like downy woodpeckers, this species features red plumage on its head, as well as white spots on the wings, a white throat, and small rounded irises.
Overall, red-bellied woodpeckers are larger and paler than downy woodpeckers. And unlike the downy woodpecker, which only has a red mark on the back of its head, the red-bellied woodpecker has an entirely red head and neck.
10. Pileated Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryocopus pileatus
Range: Eastern and West Coast United States; widespread in Canada
The pileated woodpecker is a large woodpecker with mostly black plumage except for a red crest and white stripes on the neck and head. Like most woodpeckers, this species prefers habitats with large trees (preferably in deciduous or coniferous forests). They naturally carve out large holes in decaying trees in search of insects but will also visit the occasional feeder for suet.
Similarities between this species and the downy woodpecker include the fact that both have a long, solid-built bill and white stripes on their face.
As one of the largest woodpeckers in the world (roughly 16 to 19 inches in length), the pileated woodpecker is easily distinguishable from its downy counterpart. The pileated woodpecker also is black overall, while the downy woodpecker has a white underpart.
11. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Dryobates scalaris
Range: Southwestern United States and Mexico
The ladder-backed woodpecker is a small woodpecker that is distinguishable by its black and white barring on its back, its patterned flanks, and its buffy wash throughout the body.
The males especially have a red cap that is often raised and fluffed up. It spends most of its time on small branches but will visit feeders occasionally.
The ladder-backed woodpecker highly resembles the downy woodpecker with the exception of its size, which is slightly larger, its slightly longer bill, and its flanks and back (in which case are both plain for the downy woodpecker).
12. Acorn Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes formicivorus
Range: West Coast and Southwest United States, Central America
The acorn woodpecker is a medium-sized woodpecker with a red crown, pale yellow forehead and throat, and pale eyes. The rest of the body is black with white streaks present on the underpart.
Its natural habitat includes oak forests and other open woodlands. They have a craving for acorns and tend to stash them in telephone poles or tree trunks.
Like the downy woodpecker, the acorn woodpecker also lives year-round in North America without the need to migrate. However, it’s not too difficult to distinguish the two as the acorn woodpecker is roughly 1-2 inches longer than the downy woodpecker and has a red cap and black back, while the downy woodpecker only has a small red area behind its head and a large white spot on its back.
Overall, you can see that even within the woodpecker family, many species resemble one another. If you’re ever out birdwatching, you’ll want to pay close attention to the little details because I’m sure you wouldn’t want to spend all day out just to find out later that all the photos you took were of the same species!