Ontario’s Woodpeckers

Field Trip ON Nature

by Dan Schneider and Peter Pautler


A t a press conference in Washington D.C. last April, the world learned that the ivory-billed woodpecker lives.This charismatic bird is not, to our amazement, extinct after all. It’s hard to say whether the startling news sparked renewed interest in woodpeckers, but unquestionably bird watching in general continues to grow in popularity, and woodpeckers are a particularly fascinating species.

Ontario has nine species of woodpeckers, one of which, the red-headed woodpecker, is listed by the Ontario Ministry of

Natural Resources and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as a species of special concern. All nine species are members of the Picidae family – the “true”woodpeckers, meaning hole nesters that excavate their own cavities.They are jaunty birds of upright posture, with sharp pointed bills, short legs, long stiff tails and boldly patterned feathers of black and white or brown, grey and black, with patches of red and yellow highlights.

As their name suggests, woodpeckers are renowned for “pecking” wood. They can strike trees up to 300 times a minute and as many as 8,000 to 12,000 times a day. Excavating nesting holes, foraging for insect larvae, “drumming” on resonant, hollow branches as part of their springtime mating ritual, woodpeckers are well adapted to a life of hammering on wood.

They possess straight broad-based bills with slightly flattened tips. Strong muscles located at the base of the beak and on the neck not only supply the jack-hammer power needed for the beak to penetrate hard wood, but also hold the beak steady and absorb a portion of the shock. Folds of bone on the front of the skull protrude over the upper mandible of the bill to prevent the beak from jarring back into the  skull. Because of the rounded, broad shape of the skull and the fact that at the moment of impact, the beak is perpendicular to the tree, the bulk of the deceleration shock is dissipated along a plane below and away from the brain.Tufts of feathers in the nostrils prevent sawdust from entering the bird’s nasal passages and, for further protection, woodpeckers close their eyes when pecking.

To maintain its grip on a tree trunk while pecking at such remarkable speed, a woodpecker has feet with sharp, curved nails that are zygodactyl (their feet have two toes forward, two back, except for the two Ontario species of three-toed woodpeckers). Their stiff tail feathers, called retrices, serve as a prop, with the central pair of feathers being the longest and broadest. The tail feathers are curved forward, increasing the area of contact and support when pressed against a tree.

The woodpecker’s tongue is extremely extensible, barbed at the tip and coated with extra-sticky saliva, allowing the bird to capture insect prey. Woodpeckers are capable of extending their tongues well beyond the tip of the beak – four to 13 centimetres depending on the size of the species. When retracted, the lengthy tongue wraps around the back and over the top of the skull to the front where it is anchored in the right nostril or, as in the case of the downy woodpecker, around the right eye socket. The extensible tongue allows woodpeckers to probe insect tunnels for hidden prey. Northern flickers, which feed mostly on the ground, use their tongue to reach deep into ant colonies.

Sapsuckers, whose tongues have stiff hairs instead of barbs, lap up sap and the small insects attracted to the sweet liquid.

Woodpeckers sometimes dine on carcasses, pecking away at cartilage, fat and bone to obtain calcium. Red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers have been known to pounce on small mammals, killing them with their beaks and tearing off bite-sized morsels.With such variety in their diets, Ontario’s woodpeckers are non-migratory for the most part, with the exception of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern flicker and red-headed woodpecker.

Most woodpecker species carve out a new nesting cavity each spring. Bats, squirrels, mice and other small mammals are quick to take up residence in the abandoned holes, as are birds such as blackcapped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens. Woodpecker cavities enlarge as they rot, making room for larger species such as raccoons or wood ducks to move in. Superbly adapted to their unique ecological niche, woodpeckers are critical to the enrichment of the forest ecosystem.


No Pings Yet

  1. Steve Almeida Steve Almeida
    February 27, 2012    

    To whom it may concern,

    I’m 100% sure I have seen the Ivory Billed Woodpecker on more than 1 occasion on a property that I own close to the Township of Russell. This Woodpecker is very large & I not easy to mistake with any other species. I was not aware that it was so rare but will try to film it as I found it to be an incredibly beautiful species.

  2. February 28, 2012    

    Hello Steve Almeida — Please do send us a photo. We’d love to post it on our Facebook page or maybe as a featured photo on this website. We can also help confirm the ID. You can send it to me at johnh@ontarionature.org

  3. hunter hunter
    September 30, 2012    

    i’ve just aquired a pair of downy woodpeckers in our back yard male and female will they be wintering here in south western ontario and will they mate ??? they seem to have no problem with the blue jay and cardinal

  4. Suzanne Atkinson Suzanne Atkinson
    October 16, 2012    

    I saw a large bird with- bigger then a crow- flying on my farm on Sunday. What made it so distinctive was the broad band of white which reached across both of its wings as it flew. Was it an ivory billed? Are there any other birds with that distinctive white band across their wings? thanks.

  5. Diana Diana
    January 17, 2013    

    I do believe we have either a golden fronted or red bellied woodpecker here just north of Parry Sound. They vas well as the downey were frequent in November/December but we have no seen any woodpeckers since just after Christmas. Do they migrate? This us our first winter up here and we were very excited to find what my book called the golden fronted woodpecker. Could you share your thoughts. Thanks

  6. Robin Robin
    May 15, 2013    

    I took a picture of a bird that just hit my window, wondering what kind of bird it is and hope that it will recover and fly away soon. How can I find out what kind of bird it is?

  7. May 15, 2013    

    Hello Robin,

    I am sorry to hear that a bird has hit your window, though I’m glad that we’ll be able to help identify it. Would you be able to send me your photo and I’ll be able to confirm its ID.

    Best Regards,


  8. May 15, 2013    

    Hello Diana,

    Downy woodpeckers would be somewhat common in your area in January, and are notably smaller than the red-bellied woodpeckers. Between the two, it would be more likely that you have have seen a red-bellied woodpecker or a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker north of Parry Sound as the golden-fronted woodpecker typically lives towards the central-southern United States. Red-bellied woodpeckers typically do not migrate, or if they do they don’t migrate very far.

  9. May 15, 2013    

    Hello Suzanne,

    The large woodpecker you saw was likely a pileated woodpecker. They are possibly presently North America’s largest woodpecker. A white stripe is visible on their neck and on their wings in flight.

    Ivory-billed woodpeckers have extremely rarely been reported to have been seen in the past decade, there is debate as to if they are indeed extinct.

  10. June 11, 2013    

    Hi there,
    I am a wildlife photographer from Smiths Falls, ON. I was wondering if your magazine purchases its images for Ontario photographers? I may have some images you might be interested in. Just a general inquiry.

  11. June 12, 2013    

    Hello Katie,

    Thanks for getting in touch. We do purchase photos for ON Nature magazine. Please contact Colleen with some samples of your work at: colleenc@ontarionature.org


  12. Anne-Denise Mejaki Anne-Denise Mejaki
    January 16, 2014    

    Hello, I live in New Liskeard, ON and have just seen a beautiful woodpecker in my backyard tree that called out to us. So amazing and surprising. It was large as a raven with red top extending out on head and white around its head (black body). I wonder if it could be an Ivory-billed woodpecker? When I returned outside with my camera, it was unfortunately gone. I will send photos should it return. Just wanted to let you know.

  13. January 16, 2014    

    Hello Anne-Denise,

    It was very likely a pileated woodpecker!

    In the image at the top of this article, the centre photo shows a pileated woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers are large and crow-sized. Both male and female pileated woodpeckers have white on their heads, under a red crest. Though the male pileated woodpecker has a red crown and a red malar (under its eye, behind the beak).

    In the past, ivory-billed woodpeckers have been found in the United States, but there have been very few sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in recent history.

    Thanks for letting us know!

    ON Noah

  14. Joanne Dunsford Joanne Dunsford
    February 18, 2014    


    We were up at the cottage in Minden, Ont this weekend and to our surprise a woodpecker (thinking it is a Pileated) made a hole the size of a soup bowl on one side and four smaller holes the size of a coffee cup on the other side of this massive great white pine tree. The wood chips are the size of a nickel. This tree was very healthy and now I’m wondering what will happen to it and will they build a nest this spring?


  15. […] but two very well-stocked feeders out in front of their home. The blue jays (and chickadees, and woodpeckers) just adore those feeders. Why, when I drive past Bob and Peggy’s house on my way to or from […]

  16. […] a little more serious about our relations with the local birds, as you can perhaps tell from the woodpecker feeder (photo above) that Raymond just installed on the front porch today. I am very eager for […]

  17. Phil calverley Phil calverley
    April 1, 2015    

    Have a huge soft maple had to have one section curt off as it was to close to house then cabled it this was done by a tree guy last summer it showed bad signs of bugs had a arborist look at it – he sprayed it for insects then later came back and pumped fiertilier late fall- was away for a week or so got home and noticed something had really chewed out a section — was told it would have been apileated woodpecker. Never did see it the guy is coming back in June to put ace caps – this is costly but I do not want to take a chance of loosing this tree -do you think I am on the rite track phil 705 326 6160

  18. Kari Kari
    April 7, 2015    

    Anyone who thinks they say an Ivory-billed woodpecker should have a look at a range map. They never lived in Ontario, even before they were declared extinct.

  19. Rita Jurado Rita Jurado
    July 26, 2016    

    I have spotted a bird in my front yard, its about the size of a bluejay, the body is brown, it has a red cap on its head and a black diamond shape on front chest up to its throat, there is also a thin yellow line at the edge of its wings, it was pecking at the grasss. I have never seen this bird before, does anyone know what kind of bird it is

  20. Geoffrey Parish Geoffrey Parish
    April 17, 2017    

    Wouldn’t it be helpful to show pictures of the bird you are describing with its name ?

  21. April 20, 2017    

    Hi Geoffrey,

    Great idea! Photos had been included with the descriptions in the original article. It would be a fantastic idea to include new relevant images in the online article. Hopefully we can update this shortly.

    Thanks! ON Noah

  22. Therese Miller Therese Miller
    June 24, 2017    

    My husband saw a Red Headed Woodpecker on our farm today (Sunderland Ontario). Has not seen one in our area since he was a child (1957). Beautiful!

  23. June 27, 2017    

    Hi Therese,

    Really lovely to hear that you’ve been having the chance to see the iconic and endangered red-headed woodpeckers! They are sensitive to habitat disturbance and have indeed suffered a lot of mature forest habitat loss. Thank you for letting us know you’re seeing them and they have been spotted at your farm.

    Many thanks,

    -ON Noah

  1. The biggest, fattest, happiest blue jays | Meanwhile, at the Manse on February 14, 2015 at 1:49 am
  2. Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker | lab bench to park bench on February 28, 2015 at 1:01 am
  3. What is the real name of the Squeaky Clothesline Bird? | Meanwhile, at the Manse on March 11, 2015 at 12:33 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Stay in touch with nature