Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, and Piculets: Picidae

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Woodpeckers, wrynecks, and piculets, together called picids (PISS-ids), are small- to medium-sized birds that are primarily arboreal (live in trees). They have patterns of brown, green, or black-and-white. Most picids have zygodactyl (zye-guh-DACK-tuhl) toes (two toes facing forward and two backward). Woodpeckers and piculets usually have just two feather colors, with males having red or yellow on the head and females lacking it or with less of it; while wrynecks have similar looking sexes.

Woodpeckers have stiff rectrices (RET-rihs-uhs; paired tail feathers). Wrynecks and piculets do not have rectrices. Woodpeckers have a relatively large head that is often called a "shock-absorber" due to its hammering into wood, a straight, sharply pointed to chisel-tipped bill, long cylindrical tongue that is often tipped like a brush, short legs, and strongly curved claws. The major tail feathers are mostly black.

Wrynecks have brown, gray, and black upperparts, a slender, pointed bill, rounded wings, lightly colored under parts, a relatively long tail with rounded tail feathers, and short legs. Piculets look like small woodpeckers except that tail feathers are pointed but not stiff. Piculet plumage is soft and mostly brown and black in color patterns.

Woodpeckers are 4.7 to 24.0 inches (12 to 60 centimeters) or more long and weigh between 0.6 and 21.0 ounces (17 and 600 grams). Wrynecks are 6.3 to 7.5 inches (16 to 19 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.78 and 2.10 ounces (2 and 59 grams). Piculets are 3.0 to 6.3 inches (7.5 to 16.0 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.24 and 1.20 ounces (6.8 and 33.0 grams).


Picids are found around the world except Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Madagascar, Ireland, many oceanic islands, and polar regions. Wrynecks are found only in Eurasia and Africa. Piculets are located only in Asia, South and Central America, and Hispaniola.


Picids are found in any environment that contains woody vegetation, preferring forests, woodlands, and savannas (flat grasslands). Some species are located in grasslands and deserts. Picids need high relative humidity, frequent precipitation, and the presence of standing or running water to make moist wood so that it will decay in order to help the birds more easily dig into the wood.


Their diet is mostly insects and other arthropods (invertebrate animals with jointed limbs). It also includes fruits, nuts, and tree sap. A chisel-like bill of many species helps to find wood-boring beetle larvae (LAR-vee; active immature insects), ants, and termites, along with sap stored inside trees. Its long worm-shaped tongue has a barbed tip that, together with sticky saliva, is used to catch prey.


Picids fly with both wavy and straight movements, with larger species preferring straighter motions. Since wings are short, picids are able to maneuver (mah-NOO-ver) easily throughout forests. Most picids do not migrate, but some species do make seasonal migratory trips.

Vocalizations are single notes often used to communicate between breeding mates. "Winny" and "rattle" calls are often heard, but with many differences heard from different species. Picids also communicate by making mechanical sounds by tapping on wood.

Picids are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; have a single mate), and nest in cavities, holes. Most dig their own cavities, sometimes with the assistance of helpers. All females lay shiny white eggs. Clutch size (eggs hatched together) varies within and among species, but averages three to five eggs. The incubation period (time needed to sit on and warm eggs in order for them to hatch) is ten to twelve days, and is shared by both parents. Young stay helpless, naked, and blind from birth to about four to seven days. The nestling period (time to take care of young unable to leave nest) lasts from three to six weeks.


The bright red feathers of many male woodpeckers are important to the culture of natives. Various species have been hunted for their scalps, bills, tongues, and skins. Several species have been eaten by local cultures. Woodpeckers help to control pest insect populations. However, woodpeckers are also blamed for damage to buildings and agricultural crops.


Nineteen woodpeckers and five piculet species were included on the 2003 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Three species are listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; one species as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; seven species as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and thirteen species as Near Threatened, in danger of facing a risk of extinction. Habitat destruction and modification are the largest threats to picids.


Physical characteristics: Northern wrynecks have a gray appearance without the stiff tail feathers of most picids. Their upperparts are gray mottled with brown and buff, with a diamond-shaped dark patch on the back extending to the nape (back of neck). The breast is light gray. Experts report that they have the longest tongue of any bird in proportion to its body. Sexes look alike, and juveniles look similar to adults. Adults are 6 to 7 inches (15 to 18 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.8 and 1.9 ounces (22 and 54 grams). Their wingspan is 11 to 12 inches (28 to 30 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: Some species breed from northern Eurasia south through temperate Eurasia to Japan. Other species breed in western Asia and northwestern Africa. Nonbreeding populations are found wintering in the warmer climates of central Eurasia south to drier areas of central and West Africa, India, Southeast Asia, southern China, and southern Japan.

Habitat: They live in open deciduous or mixed forests, clearings, wooded pastures, and edge habitats with scattered ground cover.

Diet: They eat arthropods, ants, and insect larvae and pupae (PYOO-pee; developing insect inside cocoon). They forage by hopping on the ground and capturing prey with its sticky tongue.

Behavior and reproduction: Northern wrynecks have a call similar to "kew-kew-kdw-kew." They travel at night about their home range, alone during the nonbreeding season, as pairs during breeding season, or as post-breeding family groups. The birds build nests in old woodpecker holes, nest boxes, and other natural and artificial cavities, sometimes enlarging them. Nests are 3 to 49 feet (1 to 15 meters) off the ground, while the nest bottom is sometimes lined with grass or moss. The clutch size is seven to twelve eggs. The incubation period is twelve to fourteen days and the fledgling period (time for young to grow flight feathers) is eighteen to twenty-two days. Both parents take care of young for ten to fourteen days after birds are able to fly. A second nest may follow after the first.

Northern wrynecks and people: No known significant relationship exists between northern wrynecks and people.

Conservation status: Northern wrynecks are not threatened. Their numbers are declining in Europe as their habitat is converted by humans and as conifer forests replace native trees. ∎


Physical characteristics: Gray woodpeckers are small woodpeckers with a long, straight, rather wide bill, unbarred green or brownish green upperparts, a red rump, a brownish black tail, and gray under parts with an orange-to-yellow belly patch and some barring on the flanks. Males have a pale, striped, gray head with red on the back of the head and neck, while females lack the red on the head. Adults are about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.4 and 1.9 ounces (40.5 and 52.5 grams).

Geographic range: They range throughout the forests and savanna habitats in central and west Africa; from sea level to 9,800 feet (3,000 meters).

Habitat: Gray woodpeckers inhabit wooded and savanna areas, thickets with large trees, riverine (near rivers) forests, gardens, and mangroves.

Diet: Their diet consists of insects, ants, termites, beetle larvae, and other arthropods. They forage on the ground, in live and dead trees, and in the air.

Behavior and reproduction: Gray woodpeckers are found in pairs and family groups. They move quickly through its habitat, and often remain near forest edges. Their call is a loud and fast "peet-peet-peet-peet." The nesting period is from December to June in west Africa; December to February and July to September in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and February to July and September to November in eastern Africa. The breeding pair digs out the nest cavity from a tree, usually 1 to 60 feet (0.3 to 18.3 meters) off the ground. Clutch size is two to four eggs. There is no known information about incubation, parental care, or fledging.

Gray woodpeckers and people: There is no known significant relationship between gray woodpeckers and people.

Conservation status: Gray woodpeckers are not threatened. They are fairly common to common in the areas where they live. ∎


Physical characteristics: Red-cockaded woodpeckers are medium, black-and-white woodpeckers with large white cheek patches and back plumage that has alternating, horizontal stripes of black and white. They have a black forehead and the back of the neck is also black with a small red streak on each side of the forehead (called a cockade, thus its name), a black stripe behind eyes, whitish under parts, and a black tail with black-spotted white outer feathers. They have black wings and wing coverts (small feather around quill base) with white spots. Males have several tiny red feathers between white cheek patches and a black crown (top of head), while females do not have red coloring. Young males have a patchy-looking red section on the forehead, while young females have white flecks on the lower forehead. Adults are 7.1 to 8.7 inches (18 to 22 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.4 and 1.9 ounces (40 and 55 grams). Their wingspan is about 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: They are scattered in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, southern Missouri, south central Kentucky, central Tennessee, to southeastern Maryland, south to southern Florida and across the Gulf coast.

Habitat: They are widely found in open, mature pine forests and forests of pine mixed with oak, especially long-leaf pines and loblolly pines.

Diet: Red-cockaded woodpeckers eat ants, beetles, caterpillars, roaches, wood-boring insects, and spiders found on tree surfaces, especially pine trees, and by scaling back loose bark. They eat earworms off of corn in the summer, along with berries and nuts. Males forage on limbs and trunk of pines above the lowest branches. Females forage on trunk below the lowest branch.

Behavior and reproduction: Red-cockaded woodpeckers are noisy birds, with calls of "yank-yank," "sripp," and "tsick." They are monogamous, with a family clan of the mated pair, current young, and unmated adult helpers. They nest in the roost cavity of the breeding male, which sometimes takes the male one year to finish (but may be used for years). Only living pine trees are used for the roost/nest. They spend a lot of time maintaining the flow of tree sap, which is used to stop predator snakes. Females lay two to five eggs. The incubation period is ten to fifteen days, and the fledgling period is twenty-two to twenty-nine days. Both parents and helpers care for young, with only one brood each year.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers and people: Because of red-cockaded woodpeckers' dependence on pine forests, they are in conflict with the logging industry. Bird watchers enjoy watching these birds.

Conservation status: Red-cockaded woodpeckers are listed as Vulnerable. They are also listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They have declined in numbers because of deforestation. Conservation measures have been enacted to help the birds recover. ∎


Physical characteristics: Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are small black-and-white woodpeckers with a short, chisel-tipped bill and a white stripe that goes down the wing. Adult males have a red throat, forehead, and forecrown, a black bib (area under bill), a bold black-and-white patterned face, a white shoulder patch, and black-and-white barring on the back. There is a pale yellow wash on the under parts, the yellow breast changes to whitish on the lower belly, and is streaked about the flanks, leading to a white rump. Females have a white throat and a paler red forehead and crown. Juveniles have more brown and buff than adults, and less white and red on crown. Adults are 7.5 to 8.7 inches (19 to 22 centimeters) long and weigh between 1.4 and 22 ounces (40 and 62 grams). Their wingspan is 16 to 18 inches (40.6 to 45.7 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: They breed in northern North America east of the Rocky Mountains across Canada from northeastern British Columbia to southern Labrador and Newfoundland, south to North Dakota and Connecticut. They have separated populations in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia. They winter in the eastern United States through eastern and southern Mexico and Central America, Bahamas, and West Indies.

Habitat: Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are found in deciduous and mixed forests, especially around aspen, birch, and hickory trees.

Diet: Their diet consists of beetles and their larvae, insects, ants, other arthropods, tree sap, fruits, tree buds, and berries. Young are fed a mixture of sap and insects by both sexes.

Behavior and reproduction: Yellow-bellied sapsuckers generally are found alone. They are usually found near a group of trees (often near water) where they obtain sap for food. Both sexes migrate, but males migrate shorter distances than females and return earlier to the breeding territory. They are often silent birds, but do make low, growling "mew" cat-like sounds. When alarmed, they give out calls of "cheee-er, cheee-er." Mates perform loud drumming duets during breeding season along with cries of "hoih-hoih." Most nests are built in living trees that are infected with a fungus that rots the tree's center. The entrance is made very small, just allowing them to enter. Clutch size is four to five eggs, with more eggs produced as the birds go north. The incubation period is twelve to thirteen days and the fledgling period is twenty-five to twenty-nine days; both parents incubate and fledge. There is one brood each year.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and people: People consider yellow-bellied sapsuckers pests when they damages trees in search of sap.

Conservation status: Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Ivory-billed woodpeckers are a very large woodpeckers that are mostly black with white streaks going down the neck on each side to the upper wing bases, a robust, chisel-tipped, ivory-white bill, a black forecrest, a white patch on the folded wing, and white secondary feathers and inner primary feathers. Males have a pointed crest (growth on top of head) that is black in front and scarlet behind. Females have a longer, more pointed, somewhat re-curved solid black crest. Adults are 18.5 to 21.0 inches (47 to 54 centimeters) long and weigh between 15.5 and 18.3 ounces (440 and 570 grams). Their wingspan is 30 to 32 inches (76.2 to 81.3 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: The birds are found in the southeastern United States from eastern Texas to North Carolina and south throughout Florida, and in Cuba.

Habitat: Ivory-billed woodpeckers inhabit old-growth forests, especially bottomlands, swamp forests and cypress swamps, pine uplands, and areas with dead trees.

Diet: They eat arthropods, especially larvae of large wood-boring beetles, and fruits.

Behavior and reproduction: Ivory-billed woodpeckers have a territory of about 6 square miles (15.5 square kilometers). They are often seen in family groups. Their call is a sad-sounding single- or double-note tooting; one such sound is a clarinet-like "yank-yank-yank." The birds are monogamous. They breed from January through April in North America and March through June in Cuba. They build nest cavities in large dead trees or in live trees with fungus. Nests are usually built 24 to 50 feet (7.3 to 15.2 meters) off the ground with a cavity often 2 feet (6 meters) in depth. Females lay two to four eggs. The incubation and fledgling periods are not known, but both parents incubate and take care of young.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers and people: Ivory-billed woodpeckers have been important to the cultures of Native Americans (especially their head and bill), as good-luck charms, and in the trade of skins and eggs for early European settlers in North America. The birds have been captured for food. They helped to limit the number of pest insects on farmlands and in forests.

Conservation status: Ivory-billed woodpeckers are listed as Critically Endangered, and may already be extinct. Their rarity is due mostly to loss old-growth forests and the killing of the birds over many centuries. ∎



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Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, and Piculets: Picidae

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