The Woodpeckers of Central Park, New York City (Pictures)

The Woodpeckers of Central Park, New York City

New York City may seem like an unlikely area for any serious birdwatching—other than pigeons. Actually, there is a diverse bird population that has found suitable habitats throughout the New York metropolitan area. One of the most obvious locations for serious bird watching is Central Park. Central park. The park’s rectangular area is about 2.5 miles long by 0.5-mile-wide for a total area of about 1.25 square miles or 840 acres. 

Here are seven woodpeckers that either are seen regularly or could be seen in Central Park and other locals around the city. Note all woodpeckers fly in an undulating pattern, using a series of wing flaps followed by a wings-folded glide. 

1. Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
The Downy Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker in New York City, and permanent residents can be found throughout the city’s seven boroughs. Look for them in any park area larger than two or three square blocks—especially in Central Park—and any other neighborhood with trees. They are the most likely bird to be heard tapping on a tree in the city.

A picture of a Downy Woodpecker perched on a post.

Description

The Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of the woodpecker family, but still have the classic woodpecker profile perched on the side of a tree—straight back, tail planted firmly against the trunk. This woodpecker is a black and white bird, with a snowy white underside, black wings with white bars, and a white back between the wings. The head is black with two white stripes that meet at the top of the bill. The only other color on the Downy Woodpecker is a red spot on the top of the male’s head.  

The Downy is easily confused with the Hairy Woodpecker, which is similar in color and pattern, but larger. The Downy is about six inches long, while the Hairy is a little over nine inches. The key identifying features are the smaller size and what appears to be a short bill for a woodpecker. 

Length: 16 cm (6.5 in)

Wingspan: 25-30 cm (5.5-6.7 in.)

Weight: 28 grams (1.0 oz.)

Longevity: 2-5 years 

Voice

The Cornel Lab describes the call as a “whinnying” sound. (Downy Woodpecker Voice) 1

Where to See

The small size of the Downy Woodpecker allows it to visit smaller trees and bushes, even tall sturdy weeds—anywhere it can find a source of insects and grubs that make up much of its diet. Listen for a rapid tapping sound as they probe tree bark for food. They will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds but prefer blocks of suet.  The best place in Central Park to see Downy Woodpeckers in an area called the North Woods and Ravine, especially in the winter.

Conservation

Downy Woodpeckers are common in their range and are not endangered, although populations in local areas are affected by available nesting sites. The population in Central Park can be expected to remain stable as long as the park is maintained. 

Additional Information 

The Downy is the woodpecker most likely to be seen in Central Park or elsewhere in the New York metropolitan area. 

2. Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

Though remarkably similar in appearance to the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker is a separate species based on genetic analysis. This slightly larger woodpecker is less common in the metropolitan New York area. They are more likely to be seen in several larger parks with larger tracts of forest in the metropolitan area, including Central Park.

A picture of a Hairy Woodpecker on the side of a tree, head turned to the left.

Description 

The Hairy Woodpecker looks likes like a larger version of the Downy Woodpecker. The key differences are size and the length of the bill. The Hairy woodpecker is about 9 inches long (three inches larger than the Downy Woodpecker) and it has a noticeably longer bill—the bill is as long as the bird’s head. Otherwise, the two woodpeckers are similar with black wings with white stripes, a white back, and two white stripes on the side of the head. Males also have a red spot on the top of their head. 

Length: 24 cm (9.5 in)

Wingspan: 38 cm (15 in.)

Weight: 20-33 grams (0.71-1.16 oz.)

Longevity: 4-11 years (one in captivity lived to 15 years)

Voice

“The most common call of the Hairy Woodpecker is a short, sharp peek note very similar to Downy Woodpeckers, but slightly lower pitched and often sounding more emphatic.”2 (Hairy Woodpecker Voice)

Where to See

Unlike the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker prefers mature woodlands and taller trees where it hunts for insects and insect larvae. Look for them in more thickly wooded areas of Central Park and other large, forested parks within the city. 

Conservation

Throughout their range, populations of Hairy Woodpeckers have actually increased since the 1960s. They depend on more densely forested areas for feeding and nesting and will move out of areas where forest density is not adequate. 

Additional Information

Hairy Woodpeckers, like other woodpeckers, will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet. 

3. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were not seen or recorded in Central Park until the late 1950s. They have gradually moved northward from more southern states where they are common. They are now common across all five boroughs of New York City.  

A picture of a red-bellied woodpecker standing on an unknown object, gassing off into the distance.

Description

Often described as a ladder-backed, or zebra-back woodpecker, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker has black and white stripes across its back and wings. The combination of the stripped back and a red cap are key identification features. Its naming feature, “red-bellied,” is visible only on close physical observation, and was presumably named by ornithologists who had museum specimens in their hands. In flight they display white patches at the base of the primary feathers on top of the wings. 

Length: 23-26 cm (9-10.5 in)

Wingspan: 33-42 cm(13.0-16.5 in.)

Weight: 56-91 grams (2.0-3.2 oz.)

Longevity: 12 years in the wild

Voice

Their voice, or call, is sometimes described as a hoarse cough.3 The call is one of the easier ways to determine that there is a Red-bellied Woodpecker is in the area. 

Where to See 

The easiest way to find Red-bellied Woodpeckers is to walk in the woods and listen for what sounds like a soft cough coming from above and then try to spot the bird making the sound. Look for the white spots on top of the wings when flying.
Conservation

Like the Hairy Woodpecker, the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s numbers have increased over the past half century. Their increase in numbers is largely due to the expansion of their ranges from being a “southern” bird in the early 1900s, spreading northward in the past 50 years. 

Additional Information

Like other woodpeckers, they will eagerly visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, peanuts, and/or suet. When they find a sunflower seed, they will usually pick it up and fly to a spot—for example, a nearby tree branch—where they will hold the seed with their claws against the wood and use their beaks to hammer open the shell and pluck out the seed kernel. 

4. Northern Yellow-Shafted Flicker (Colaptus auratus)

The Flicker is a medium-sized woodpecker, with subspecies distributed across North America and south into the Caribbean. 

A Northern Yellow-shafted Flicker perched an unknown object.

Description

Identifying marks include a black, bib-like patch on the upper chest; dark spots on the beige chest, and a red or black “moustache” below the eye. A common identifying feature is the white rump that is revealed as the bird takes flight. 

Length: 28-36 cm (11-14 in)

Wingspan: 42-54 cm (17-21 in.)

Weight: 86-167 grams (3.0: 5.9 oz.)

Longevity: 4-6 years (oldest known was 9 yr. 2 mo.)

Voice

Northern Flickers have several calls. The most familiar is a rapidly repeated, high pitched “che.”4

Where to See

Flickers are among the most common woodpeckers. While many migrate seasonally, others are year-round residents in all of New York City. Look for the tan back with black cross-stripes. In flight, from below, you may be able to see the yellow-gold tint of the underside of the wings. This accounts for the bird’s other name—the yellow-shafted flicker. 

They are commonly seen on the ground, searching for insects, worms, etc. Look for the distinctive white rump as it takes off. 

Conservation

While flickers are common and widely distributed across North America. Their overall population is estimated to have declined by nearly 50% since 1966, most likely due to loss of woodland habitats. The wide distribution of the various variants or subspecies across most of North America, despite the loss in numbers, indicates the species is not endangered.

Additional Information

Breeding pairs will often use nesting boxes along the wooded edges of yards. It may be a season or two before a pair will move into a next box. They are not attracted by feeders but are likely to be seen on the ground in backyards and may occasionally visit a bird bath.


5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are relatively common, both as migrants and as residents of New York City area parks. They are a much more common than Red-Headed Woodpeckers and may even overwinter in isolated areas of Central Park and other areas of the city.

A picture of a yellow-bellied sapsucker on the side of a tree.

Description

The distinguishing feature of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the extended white patch on the wing just below the “shoulder.” The head of the male is boldly black with a white strip starting above the eye, extending back to the neck. He also has a bright red forehead cap and throat. Females’ heads are grayer, and the pattern is less distinct. The key distinguishing feature between the sexes is the red throat of the male—there is no red in the female. 

The underparts, from the breast back are tinged in yellow—that gives it its name. The Sapsucker also flashes a white rump as it flies, but the Sapsucker is much smaller than the Flicker. It also displays bold white shoulder patches in flight.

Length: 19-21 cm (7.0-8.3 in)

Wingspan: 34-40 cm (13.4-15.8 in.)

Weight: 50 grams (1.76 oz.)

Longevity: 2-5 years 

Voice

The basic voice can be described as a “scratchy high-pitched mewing” sound, repeated several times in sequence.5

  Where to See

A sure sign that these birds are in the area are the “sap wells” they “drill” in tree bark. They revisit these “wells” frequently to drink the sugary sap and consume any bugs caught in the sticky sap. The sap wells are often “drilled” in neat rows around the trunks of the trees. Sapsuckers are found in both hardwood and conifer forests. 

Conservation

The sapsucker population in North America has remained stable since populations studies were begun in 1966. 

Additional Information

“Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been found drilling sapwells in more than 1,000 species of trees and woody plants, though they have a strong preference for birches and maples.”6 (All About Birds)

6. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Red-headed Woodpeckers were quite common some years ago, but the population has declined significantly.  Still, some “Red-heads” stick around all year in Central Park. “Perhaps one of the coolest things about wintering Red-headed Woodpeckers in New York City is that they are often juveniles and they gradually go from being a plain-Jane youngster to a ravishing redhead as they molt into adult plumage.”8(1000 Birds)

Red-headed Woodpeckers are more omnivorous than many woodpeckers, feeding on a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates, fruits, berries, and seeds, as well as nuts. 

A picture of a Red-headed woodpecker on the side of a tree, head turned to the left.

Description

Adult Red-headed Woodpeckers—both male and female—are easy to identify, being the only woodpecker with completely red heads. These are medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly large, rounded heads, short, stiff tails, and powerful, spike-like bills.9 (all about birds)

Length: 19-23 cm (7.5-9.1 in.)

Wingspan: 42 cm (16.5 in.)

Weight: 56-91 grams (2 to 3.2 oz.)

Longevity: 5-7 years (maximum is 9 years)

Voice

Red-headed Woodpeckers give all kinds of chirps, cackles, and other raucous calls. Their most common call is a shrill, hoarse tchur, like a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s but higher-pitched and less rolling. They are noisy as well as colorful, vocalizing with a variety of harsh “churrs” and rising “queery” calls.10, 11, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/sounds 

Where to See

In Central park, look for bare, dead limbs or trunks. In rural areas look for them in orchards, pastures, wetlands, and suburban parks with widely spaced trees and standing snags. They can occasionally be lured to feeders with an assortment of fruit and nuts as well as suet.

Conservation

While not yet endangered, the species is listed as “near threatened” by the ICUN Red List. Populations are declining due primarily to loss of their favored habitat of bottomland forest ecosystems.

Additional Information

The Red-headed Woodpecker is something of a nomadic species, moving from one area to the next in search of it favored food of nuts and berries. 

7. The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

The Pileated (pill-ee-ated) Woodpecker is included here because there are occasional sightings in and around the metropolitan New York area. One of the latest sightings was in 2009 in the Bronx, and they are fairly common in West Chester County. It is included here as an unlikely, but possible, sighting in Central Park. They are more commonly heard rather than seen. This is a large bird, about the size of a crow, but unmistakable in appearance. In flight, the underside of the forward two-thirds of the wings are bright white; another identifying characteristic.

A Pileated woodpecker standing on a piece of wood, looking straight ahead.

Description

The Pileated Woodpecker is a large bird, about the size of a crow, but unmistakable in appearance. The body is mostly black, with white along the side of the face and down the neck. The key identifying characteristic is the bright red, prominent crest, and the long bill. 

Length: 40-49 cm (15.8-19.3 in)

Wingspan: 66-75 cm (26.0-29.5 in.)

Weight:  250 – 350 grams (8.8 – 12.3 oz.)

Longevity: 13 years maximum in the wild 

Voice

The typical voice is a prolonged series of loud “piping” sounds that can be heard for several thousand feet. It is very distinctive and hearing the call is almost as good as seeing this magnificent woodpecker. 

Where to See

The Pileated Woodpecker is a creature of mature forests, especially across Canada and south into most of the eastern half of the United States. Look for it in and the canopy of a group of trees. It flies agilely through and around the branches of large trees, often “piping” as it goes. 

Conservation

Being a large bird, it was hunted as a game bird up until early in the 1900s. Early in the history of telegraph and telephone lines, these woodpeckers could severely damage telephone poles, which added another reason for shooting them. But, like many bird species, the greatest threat is loss of habitat. As a large bird, it requires more space and larger tracts of land to survive. Still, it is not yet listed as threatened or endangered.  

Additional Information

As for whether the Pileated Woodpecker was the inspiration for the popular cartoon Woody Woodpecker…well that is a discussion for another day.

_________

Endnotes

  1. The Cornell Lab, “All About Birds”
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Missouri Botanical Gardens via Pinterest
  8. The Cornell Lab, “All About Birds”
  9. 1000 Birds
  10. The Cornell Lab, “All About Birds”
  11. Ibid
  12. International Union for Conservation
  13. The Cornell Lab, “All About Birds”
Jeff Richmond

I grew up on a farm in Virginia, surrounded by creeks and marshes, abundant with all manner of living things. The farm was rich in birdlife, from nesting eagles and fish hawks, to chickadees and wrens nesting around the house. My mother, a teacher, had several bird books and we often sat in the yard or took walks identifying each one we saw. She also made sure I knew about the natural history of each bird—what it ate, where it nested, if it was a seasonal migrant, etc. She instilled an interest in birds—actually all creatures—that has persisted throughout my life, travels, and writing. The farm and my mother’s influence led me to degrees in biology and environmental sciences, after which I became a writer.