East meets West is a common theme for South Dakota birding and birdes. Many areas of the state are home to a variety of birds that are common either in the western or eastern half of the country. South Dakota woodpeckers show that same type of diversity.
It starts with the Northern Flicker.
Only two flicker species have been documented in the United States. The most common species, the Northern Flicker, divides into western and eastern subspecies. The West Coast variant is named the Red-shafted Northern Flicker and the East Coast variant is named the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. The color designation refers to the under the wing color of their tail and wing feathers.
North Dakota is a space where west meets east and the flicker subspecies also hybridize. So, it’s an area for Flicker fans trying to determine how to identify any indiidual bird they see.
Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers are common residents in South Dakota, especially during the summer breeding season.
The red crested head and white stripes across the face makes it difficult to mistake the Pileated Woodpecker for any other species. It’s the only species in the Dryocopus genus in the United Sates and probably the largest woodpecker in any area.
They are a very rare bird in the state.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are the second of the two wide-spread Melanerpes woodpeckers. They are larger than average birds with an outgoing personality. They easily adapt to backyard feeders and their loud vocalizations can often be heard through the neighborhood.
Physically, the name red-bellied can be a bit misleading because the stomach feathers have barely a hint of red to them. The back and top of the male’s head is red. The female’s head is buffy and the nape is red.
They belong to the same genus as the Acorn Woodpecker, and like them, they are known to store food in cracks in trees. Their diet also consists of in season fruit, nuts and insects.
Red-headed woodpeckers rank as the most wide spread of the Melanerpes species, with a presence in almost every state from the Rocky Mountains and destinations east. It’s physical appearance translates into easy identification. Their populations in South Dakota have trended down over the past few decades.
The head, covered in red feathers, along with a white stomach stands out in a crowded woodpecker field. Both males and females share this feature. Juveniles have brown feathers on the head for their first year.
They enjoy open areas with grasses and woodlands, especially oak dominated areas because the consume acorns. Their propensity for nuts also means they are easily enticed to backyard feeders with suet or other healthy nuts such as sunflower seeds.
Western states provide a very good habitat for a variety of uncommon woodpeckers. Mountains and larger tracks of old growth forest, especially Ponderosa Pine of the Black Hills suit the Lewis’s Woodpecker needs in South Dakota.
The picture shows another of the woodpecker’s special features. More than any other native species, the purple to red hue on the feathers of the Lewis’s Woodpecker makes it stand out. The greenish head feathers and gray collar and chest compliment the dark wings and tail.
In the wild, they consume a variety of common insects in their territory, including ants, bees and wasps. In fall and winter, they focus on acorns and fruit, so rural homeowners in their territory might be able to entice them to the feeder. Otherwise, they are not categorized as your typical feeder bird.
Many states in the northern areas of the United States, including South Dakota, host four of the nine native Picoides woodpecker species.
The Black-backed and Three-toes woodpeckers look similar However their habitat preferences slightly diverge.
Black-backed woodpeckers prefer high elevation forests in the Black Hills that suffer some type of damage, such as wildfires. That is the case because their diet consists primarily of insects, especially wood-boring beetles that flock to large dead and moribund trees.
As a result, Black-backed woodpecker populations in all states, including South Dakota, changes as the habitat changes. In times of abundant food, populations thrive. Unfortunately in times where forest areas recover, their populations decrease.
They are cavity nesters, similar to other woodpecker species. As the picture highlights, the yellow crown on the male distinguishes them from the typical red crown of more common woodpecker species. Females have a black crown.
American Three-toed Woodpeckers, on the other hand, move north for their breeding season. In fact, they often get recognized as the species tat breeds farther north than any other native woodpecker species.
Physically it resembles the Black-backed Woodpecker, although it’s a bit smaller with a shorter bill. Otherwise, the black and white bars on the back and presence of a yellow crown on the male are similar. Female has solid black crown.
Populations in the far north and high mountains may migrate to the valleys, and on rare occurrences even further south, during the winter. Otherwise, they are not known as a regular migratory species. Their life in the woods means they are not known as a common backyard feeder bird. At most, they are still considered a rare species in the state.
Downy and Hairy woodpeckers also look very similar. Overall size along with bill size are the standard field identification clues.
The Downy’s black and white feather pattern resembles the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker. Downy Woodpeckers typically have small bills. Males have a red crown. The picture shows a female.
The Hairy Woodpecker picture highlights the comparatively larger bill. Otherwise, the black and white striped face, white belly and back feathers look very similar. Males also have a red crown.
Both species adapt to forests and residential areas alike. Look Downy Woodpeckers are more common, however, both can be found at backyard feeders.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breeds in the northern parts of North America, including South Dakota.
Males have a red crown and throat. Females only have a red crown. It’s very easy to identify in its East Coast territories. There might be some overlap with the Red-naped Sapsucker territory. The presence of red feathers on the back of the neck differentiates the Red-naped Sapsucker from the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are another specialty bird of the Black Hills.
They are migratory and while some will take to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains during the winter months, many also Sapsuckers winter in Mexico, and central America. When they migrate to the valleys they are often seen in residential areas.