The 10 Woodpecker Species Found in Montana! (ID Guide)
What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in Montana?
Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds to attract, and I look for them every day in our backyard. I love watching them eat suet from my feeders, or if I’m lucky, listening to them in the woods as they drum on trees. 🙂
No matter where you live in Montana, you are able to see a large number of woodpeckers hanging around. Most people are surprised at the wide variety of species that can be found near them.
To learn more about other birds near you, check out these guides!
In fact, 10 types of woodpeckers live across Montana!
- *RELATED: Watch the LIVE bird feeder and animal cameras in MY backyard* (You may get lucky and see a woodpecker feeding on my cams RIGHT NOW!)
Below you will learn more about each one AND how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
#1. Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in Montana! You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards.
These birds have a shorter bill and are relatively small compared to other species. Color-wise, they have white bellies, with a mostly black back that features streaks and spots of white. Male birds have a distinctive red spot on the back of their head, which females lack.
Downy Woodpecker Range Map
Downy Woodpeckers are found in many different habitats in Montana. Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods that have a water source nearby. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
How do you attract Downy Woodpeckers to your feeders?
Luckily, this woodpecker species is easy to draw to your backyard. The best foods to use are suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (including peanut butter). You may even spot them drinking sugar water from your hummingbird feeders! If you use suet products for attracting woodpeckers, make sure to use a specialized suet bird feeder.
Naturally, these birds eat many types of insects, such as beetle larvae, hidden beneath the barks of trees. Ants and caterpillars are also readily consumed, along with a mix of berries, grains, and acorns.
What sounds do Downy Woodpeckers make?
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
Once you know what to listen for, my guess is that you will start hearing Downy Woodpeckers everywhere you go. Their calls resemble a high-pitched whinnying sound that descends in pitch towards the end.
And if you’re really good, you can try to identify this species by the way they drum on trees, which they do when looking for a mate or establishing a territory. The drumming is so fast it almost sounds like one uninterrupted sound!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like bill. Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Montana in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. Honestly, they can be found anywhere where there is an abundance of large trees around.
These woodpeckers are easily attracted to bird feeders!
Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food sources, which are insects, aren’t as plentiful, and their diet switches to mainly seeds. I have the best luck using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpeckers can be a bit tricky to identify because they look almost identical to Downy Woodpeckers! These two birds are confusing to many people and present a problem when trying to figure out the correct species.
Here are the best ways to differentiate them:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches long, which is about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches in length, which is slightly bigger than a House Sparrow.
- Looking at the size of their bills in relation to their head is my FAVORITE way to tell these woodpeckers apart. Downys have a tiny bill, which measures a bit less than half the length of their head, while Hairys have a bill that is almost the same size as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, then try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, listen for their two distinct sounds:
The most common call is a short, sharp “peek.” This sound is similar to what a Downy Woodpecker makes, except it’s slightly lower in pitch. They also make a sharp rattling or whinny.
#3. Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome birds and relatively common in Montana. They are about the size of an American Robin and feature a black bib and spotted belly.
Depending on your location, these woodpeckers appear different. There are two distinct variations you should watch for:
This sub-species is mostly found in the eastern half of the continent. These birds are characterized by red on the back of their head and yellow feathers on their underwing and tail that are visible in flight. Males also have a mustache stripe, which females lack.
This variety is found in the west. To correctly identify, look for a red mustache stripe, which is found on both sexes. Also, when they are in flight, you can clearly see red-orange feathers on their underwing and tail. Red-shafted Northern Flickers also have a mostly gray face with a brown crown, whereas the Yellow-shafted variety has a brown face and gray crown.
And here is the most confusing part:
Where these two varieties of Northern Flickers overlap, they breed with each other! Not surprisingly, these hybrids have a mixture of both features.
To find a Northern Flicker, you should look on the ground!
These birds are unique and don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They spend a lot of their time searching for ants and beetles on the forest floor by digging through the dirt! They hammer away at the soil just like other woodpeckers drill into trees.
Watch a Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) visiting my feeding station!
In the winter, their diet switches to include fruits and berries, which is when it’s possible to see them at bird feeders. They don’t visit often, but you may see them nibbling on suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. To attract Northern Flickers, you may have better luck installing an appropriately sized nestbox or ensuring your backyard has many native plants, which attract insect species.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound!
Northern Flickers emit a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
They also make a one-note contact call (“peah”).
#4. Pileated Woodpecker
There are no other woodpecker species that will make you stop in your tracks quite like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE, and adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (99 cm)! For reference, this is about the size of a crow.
In addition to their large size, these birds are mostly black but with white stripes on their face and neck. Look for a large triangle red crest on the top of their heads. Males have a red stripe on their cheek, where the stripe is black on females.
Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
Pileated Woodpeckers are common in Montana in large, mature forests with lots of dead and fallen trees. They rely on rotting wood consisting of ants, wood-boring beetles, and termites to find food. Although they will supplement their diet with fruits and nuts.
Press PLAY below to hear a Pileated Woodpecker!
These birds are quite vocal, and you should have no problem hearing one. Listen for a loud “cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk,” which rises and falls in pitch and volume. Just to warn you, Northern Flickers sound incredibly similar!
You can also identify a Pileated Woodpecker by its drumming, which consists of 10 – 30 taps delivered in less than a second. Drumming is used year-round by both sexes to defend or establish territory, attract mates, or to warn of intruders.
Pileated Woodpeckers will visit suet feeders!
Yes, it’s possible to attract these stunning birds to your backyard. They are most often seen dining on suet. The above video was taken from my bird feeding station! 🙂
#5. Red-headed Woodpecker
This bird gets my vote for the best-looking woodpecker in Montana!
Red-headed Woodpeckers are characterized by a large red head and a bill that is larger than most other species. Their back is entirely black, except for white wing patches, which contrasts against the pure white belly. Because of their bold patterning, these birds are sometimes called the “flying checkerboard.” 🙂
Red-headed Woodpecker Range Map
Unfortunately, populations of Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined by over 70% in the past 50 years!
The main culprit is habitat loss due to the destruction of giant beech forests, which produce beechnuts, one of their favorite foods. Simultaneously, almost every American Chestnut tree in the country was destroyed due to a fungal disease called chestnut blight.
And for aesthetic reasons, most people cut down dead trees, which these woodpeckers rely upon for nesting cavities.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are one of the only woodpecker species known to store food. They will hide nuts, seeds, or insects under bark, in fence posts, or even wedged under roof shingles. Incredibly, they will even store LIVE crickets by shoving them in a crevice so tightly they can’t escape!
Press PLAY below to hear a Red-headed Woodpecker!
If you happen to find yourself in the correct habitat of these birds, then make sure to listen for them! Their most common call is a shrill “tchur,” which sounds similar to a Red-bellied Woodpecker, except it’s a bit more higher-pitched and doesn’t roll as much.
#6. Lewis’s Woodpecker
Lewis’s Woodpeckers are incredibly unique when it comes to woodpeckers.
For example, here are a few attributes that these birds possess:
- Lewis’s Woodpeckers look different and are bulkier than other species of woodpecker. Both males and females have a green back, pink body, gray collar, and a red face patch! I think it looks like Christmas decided to make a woodpecker! 🙂
- It’s extremely rare to ever find these birds drilling into a tree looking for wood boring insects. Instead, they catch insects in midair by waiting patiently from a perch, similar to flycatchers.
- Lastly, Lewis’s Woodpeckers fly using slow, deep wingbeats and frequently glide, which very much resembles how a crow flies. Most other woodpecker species have more of a bounding flight pattern.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Range Map
These nomadic woodpeckers are found in Montana in open ponderosa pine forests, recently burned areas, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woods.
Press PLAY below to hear a Lewis’s Woodpecker!
Lewis’s Woodpeckers are more silent than other woodpecker species. But during the mating season, you may hear a harsh “churr” call given by the male, which is repeated several times in a row.
#7. Red-naped Sapsucker
These birds are smaller woodpeckers, with black bodies and a white vertical stripe down the wing, and a red crown. Male birds have a red throat and red nape (back of the neck). Females also have a red throat, but there is also a small white patch just under the bill, and their nape can be white or red.
Red-naped Sapsucker Range Map
Red-naped Sapsuckers are commonly found near aspen, birch, and willow trees. Look for their presence by examining these trees for tiny holes that have been drilled.
To slurp up sap, these migratory woodpeckers have a specialized tongue. Believe it or not, they have stiff hairs on the ends, which helps drink the sap more effectively. The sap wells they create are important to them, and they spend much of their time defending them from other birds.
The most common sound you will hear is a harsh, repeated “waah.”
Some people think they sound like a small child crying. You can also listen for their drumming, which is relatively slow and irregular.
Red-naped Sapsuckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers used to be lumped together as the same species. But in 1983, researchers determined that they needed to be separated into individual species.
But where territories overlap among these three species, they will breed with each other. So if you ever have trouble differentiating between sapsucker species, please know you may be looking at a hybrid!
#8. Williamson’s Sapsucker
Williamson’s Sapsuckers are common woodpeckers found in Montana. These birds are typically found in extensive, mature coniferous forests.
Males and females look entirely different!
This attribute is rare in woodpeckers, where both sexes typically appear similar. In fact, when these birds were first discovered, it took scientists a long time to even realize they were the same species!
- Males: Their bodies are mostly black with large white wing patches. Faces have two distinctive white stripes running horizontally. Bellies are yellow, and the throat displays a small red patch.
- Females: Horizontal black and white barring decorate their backs. Heads are brown. On their chest, look for a black breast patch.
Williamson’s Sapsuckers Range Map
Like all sapsucker species, these birds rely heavily on tree sap for food. Shallow holes are drilled into trees, called sap wells, which allow the sugary liquid to flow. Williamson’s Sapsuckers ONLY eat sap from conifer trees, leaving deciduous trees alone.
When it comes to woodpeckers, these birds make a unique sound. Their nasally, descending calls (“chyahh”) sound more like a raptor!
#9. American Three-toed Woodpecker
Both sexes have black and white barring around and across their bodies. Males have a yellow crown on the top of their head, whereas females have a black crown with white spots and streaks.
You will find American Three-toed Woodpeckers living among conifer trees. Specifically, these birds are found in disturbed areas, such as coniferous forests that have been damaged by fires, wind storms, or floods. This is because these places have lots of dead trees and limbs, which attract beetle larvae that these woodpeckers feast on!
American Three-toed Woodpeckers have a distinctive foraging style.
They chip at dead or dying trees until pieces of bark break off, which gives them access to the insects (and sometimes sap) beneath. A good indication that these birds are in the area is if you can find a tree with patches with dark outer bark and lighter inner bark.
In-flight, you may also hear a descending rattle, which is similar in sound to a kingfisher. Their typical call is a soft, squeaking “mew” or “pik.”
American Three-toed Woodpecker Range Map
One interesting fact about this bird is that it breeds farther north than ANY other woodpecker in Montana!
#10. Black-backed Woodpecker
Finding a Black-backed Woodpecker in easy! All you need to do is find forests that have been burned within the last eight years!
These woodpeckers are specialists and locate recently burned areas just weeks after the fire blazes through. These birds feast on the wood-boring beetles that start infesting the dead trees. The feasting is so good that Black-backed Woodpeckers will stay in these areas anywhere from five to eight years after the initial burn.
Black-backed Woodpecker Range Map
You can find these woodpeckers in Montana living in coniferous forests.
These woodpeckers are relatively easy to identify since, as the name suggests, they have a completely solid black back. Males have a distinctive yellow patch on the top of their head, which females lack.
Their call sounds like a hard or sharp “kyiik” or “pik.”
Which woodpecker species have you seen before in Montana?
Leave a comment below!
- RELATED: 8 Most Common Hummingbird Species! (ID Guide)
- The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!