Migration is a common behavior among the world’s wildlife that allows species to move to and from ideal feeding and breeding grounds as the seasons change. Birds are among the most mobile life forms, and they have evolved to undertake epic migrations, sometimes taking them thousands of miles each year!
Woodpeckers probably aren’t the first birds that come to mind when you think of migration, but many of the world’s Woodpecker species are at least partially migratory. There are several migratory species in the United States, but just one in the United Kingdom.
There’s a lot more to learn about Woodpecker migration. Read along with us to discover which species migrate, where they go, and how this behavior benefits them.
Pictured: A female Pileated Woodpecker in-flight
The United States is home to an impressive 22 Woodpecker species, and at least seven of them are partially or fully migratory. Most of these birds live in the American West, but there are migratory species throughout the country.
Most of the migratory species move relatively short distances, usually remaining within the United States, Mexico, and Canada. However, Northern Flickers and the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers stand out as long-distance migrants that fly hundreds or even thousands of miles.
The majority of American Woodpeckers are resident and can be seen in the same areas throughout the year. Common species such as the Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Pileated Woodpecker all show this behavior.
Continue reading to learn about seven migratory Woodpecker species from North America.
Pictured: Northern Flicker. During migration, these birds can fly hundreds or even thousands of miles
Lewis’s Woodpecker is one of the largest members of the Picidae family in the United States. These birds occur from New Mexico and California in the Southwest to Montana and British Columbia in the north. They are partial migrants, and northern populations are more mobile than birds in the south of their range.
The Lewis's Woodpecker is one of the largest members of the Picidae family in the USA and is a partial migrant
The Red-headed Woodpecker is among the most striking birds in America and one of the few eastern Woodpeckers that regularly migrate. They can be seen throughout most of the eastern half of the US all year, although many breeding birds move short distances into the Upper Midwest and Northeast each spring.
The Red-headed Woodpecker is among the most striking birds found in the United States
One of four American species in the Sphyrapicus genus, Williamson’s Sapsuckers are partial migrants from the West. They occur throughout the year in some parts of their range but are largely migratory, breeding as far north as British Columbia and overwintering in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico.
Pictured: Williamson's Sapsucker perching on a tree trunk
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a highly migratory North American Woodpecker species. These birds breed from Alaska to the Northeast of the United States and overwinter from the Southeast to Central America and the Caribbean.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a highly migratory North American Woodpecker
Very similar in appearance to the previous species but limited to the Western half of the United States, Red-naped Sapsuckers occur as far north as the South of British Columbia in the summer. Some remain in the Southwest in winter, but most cross the border to spend the colder months in Mexico.
Red-naped Sapsuckers occur as far north as the South of British Columbia during the summer
The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a colorful American Woodpecker restricted to the West Coast between Alaska and Baja California. These birds may be seen all year in much of their range, although migratory populations move short distances between inland breeding grounds and coastal areas or from north to south.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker may be seen all year in much of their range
The Northern Flicker is a widespread and well-known American Woodpecker that can be seen almost everywhere in North America. They occur throughout the year in most of the Lower 48 states, although many migrate into Canada and even Alaska each spring to breed.
Pictured: Northern Flicker. Many of the species migrate into Canada and Alaska each spring to breed
Of the four Woodpecker species in the United Kingdom, only one is truly migratory. However, many bird species (including some Woodpeckers) from Continental Europe will visit the UK in years with harsh winters or food shortages.
Continue reading to learn more about migration in UK Woodpeckers.
The Wryneck is a cryptically camouflaged member of the Picidae family that is widespread in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They were once a breeding species in the United Kingdom but can now be seen briefly in the spring and autumn as they migrate between Continental Europe and Africa.
Pictured: Eurasian Wryneck. This species is a cryptically camouflaged member of the Picidae family
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is the most common species in the United Kingdom and is resident throughout the year. Northern European birds are known to visit the UK when food is scarce, although this is thought to be an irregular event.
The remaining two species, namely the Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor), are both resident throughout the year in the United Kingdom and the rest of their European and Asian ranges.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker (pictured) is the most common species in the United Kingdom
Woodpecker migrations vary tremendously between species and populations. The longest migrations can span well over a thousand miles one-way, particularly for species like the Northern Flicker that breed at high latitudes in Alaska and Northern Canada.
However, not all Woodpeckers undertake impressive journeys, and some, like Lewis’s Woodpecker, are short-distance partial migrants. Their annual migrations may take them anywhere from a few hundred miles to just a mile or two, and some don’t migrate at all.
With such variation in distance, Woodpecker migrations can take anything from a single day to several weeks - It all depends on the species, the year, and the individual.
Their behavior on migration also varies between species. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are known to migrate in flocks, and interestingly, females tend to fly further south in the winter than their male counterparts. These birds migrate at night, unlike Lewis’s Woodpeckers, which travel by day.
The Lewis's Woodpecker (pictured) migrates during the day
Clearly, migration is beneficial to many of the world’s Woodpecker species, but why would they risk predation and starvation by moving from one area to another?
Woodpeckers move in response to food availability. Flickers, for example, feed primarily on ants caught in their underground nests, which would be very difficult when the ground is covered in snow! Sapsuckers face a different challenge when the sap they feed on freezes and ceases to flow.
These birds show a general north-to-south or higher-to-lower latitude trend during fall migration and then reverse their direction in the following spring. However, some simply head for the coast or lower altitudes where it stays warmer.
Temperature isn’t the only factor that affects food availability. Food resources like the yields of plant seeds are variable, and in some years, even sedentary Woodpeckers must disperse to different areas to avoid starvation.
Pictured: Great Spotted Woodpecker (left) and Black Woodpecker (right) in winter
Migration is a risky exercise for any bird species. Flying long distances requires a lot of energy, and it often takes birds at least temporarily outside their preferred habitats. Along the journey, they may be exposed to different predators and, in some cases, even forced to fly over the open ocean.
The modern world has created new challenges for migrating Woodpeckers. Nocturnal migrants like Sapsuckers often crash into buildings and other man-made structures when they become confused by artificial light. However, migratory species must take this risk to survive or face starvation.
Pictured: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Sapsuckers are nocturnal migrants
Most Woodpecker species do not migrate. About two-thirds of the American Woodpecker species can survive in the same areas year-round by varying their diets and accessing food hidden beneath tree bark and within decomposing wood. Some, like the Acorn Woodpecker, even store enough food to see them through the cold days of winter.
Most Woodpeckers excavate a new nest each year. However, some species will return to nest in the same cavity or drill out a new nest very nearby. The beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker is a good example of such a species.
As a rule, bird hibernation is extremely rare, with comparable behavior seen only in a few species like Poorwills and Hummingbirds. Woodpeckers are not known to hibernate, and most species survive the winter by retiring to their own insulated roost cavities each night or migrating to warmer areas.
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