What is a Woodpecker?

Mary Elizabeth

Woodpeckers are a type of bird, members of the order Piciformes and of the family Picidae. Closely related families include the honeyguides, barbets, and toucans. There are 28 or 29 genera in the order and 215 species. Members of the woodpecker order often have woodpecker in their names, but may also be called flickers, wrynecks, piculets, and sapsuckers.


Woodpeckers are a variety of sizes, including small, medium, and large. The smallest of the woodpeckers is Picumnus aurifrons, the Bar-breasted Piculet, live in South America. They weigh .25 oz (7 gm) and are 3.2 in (8.13 cm) long. Campephilus imperialis, the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico — which may now be extinct — is or was the largest of the woodpeckers at 1.2 lb (563 gm) and 1.8 ft (55 cm) long. The diet varies somewhat across species, but includes small insects, spiders, nuts, seeds, and berries.

Woodpeckers are primarily arboreal, and typically have bills shaped like chisels and used for digging grubs out of trees and digging nest holes. The steady “clack, clack, clack” of their bills hitting the tree trunk is a sign to many of their presence. Their zygodactulous toes, two of which point forwards and two of which point backward, and stiff tail retrices, or tail feathers, assist in their perpendicular climbing of trees.

The range of the woodpeckers is extensive. They can be found in all of South America, Central America, and the continental United States except very far north in Alaska. They exist across much of Canada, except the northernmost regions, all of Africa roughly south of the Sahara Desert, and in much of Europe and Asia. They are not found in Greenland, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Madagascar, the Pacific Islands, or at the extremes of the polar regions. Some of the species of woodpecker are the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the African Piculet, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, the Northern Flicker, and the Black-headed Woodpecker.

A number of species of woodpeckers are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List from 2001. The IUCN categories include three levels of threatened species — vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered — and two levels of extinction: in the wild and extinct. By this criteria, three species were considered to be critically endangered; two be endangered; and four to be vulnerable. Nine species were listed as “near threatened,” the category just before a species is designated as threatened.

One woodpecker has made its way into pop culture. The animated cartoon character Woody Woodpecker® has appeared in a number of cartoons and had a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the 1988 film that combined live action with animations of many famous cartoon characters.

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