Woodpeckers are a fun group of birds to watch. Their unique adaptation to be able to drill into trees at high speed without injuring themselves is quite unique! In this article we’ll take a look at 9 species of woodpeckers in South Dakota, and give a little information about where and when you might be able to spot them. At the end of the article we’ll also share a few tips on how to attract woodpeckers to your yard.
9 Species of Woodpeckers in South Dakota
While some of these species are common in backyards, at least three are more rare and only reside in South Dakota in the Black Hills National Forest. The habitats found in the Black Hills are unique to the surrounding area, creating an “oasis” for all sorts of wildlife. The woodpeckers come for the plentiful ponderosa pine trees. It’s a great place to visit if you are looking to see new species of woodpeckers!
The 9 species of woodpeckers in South Dakota are the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, red-headed woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, American three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker and Lewis’s woodpecker.
1. Downy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens
- Length: 5.5-6.7 in
- Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz
- Wingspan: 9.8-11.8 in
You can find these tiny woodpeckers everywhere throughout South Dakota all year. They are very common throughout almost all of the U.S. and are the smallest species of woodpeckers in North America.
The downy is only about the size of a sparrow, and can be identified by the white spots on their backs, and pure white chest and belly. Males have a red patch at the back of their head.
The downy is the woodpecker species most likely to visit backyard bird feeders. They love suet but also eat a variety of seeds like sunflower seeds, millet, and peanuts. You may even see them visiting your hummingbird feeder, where their small beak allows them access to the sugar water.
2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Dryobates villosus
- Length: 7.1-10.2 in
- Weight: 1.4-3.4 oz
- Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in
You may be wondering if you’re looking at another downy woodpecker in this picture. The answer is no, but they sure do look alike. Hairy woodpeckers often occur in the same areas as downy’s across the U.S. and cause plenty of confusion when you’re trying to identify which is which.
The hairy woodpecker is significantly larger, and has a longer beak relative to its body size than the downy. We have an article here that can help you learn how to tell them apart.
These two woodpeckers are very similar in all ways from habitat to diet. They can be found throughout South Dakota all year. The hairy woodpecker tends to be a little more shy of humans, and while they will visit backyard suet feeders, they aren’t as commonly seen as the downy.
3. Northern Flicker
- Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
- Length: 11.0-12.2 in
- Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in
These medium to large sized woodpeckers are quite common in backyards throughout the United States. In my opinion they are also among some of the most colorful birds in North America.
Flickers feed mainly on insects and unlike other woodpeckers, often like to find them on the ground rather than trees. Identify them by the black spots on their bellies, solid black bib, barred black and gray wings, and brown face on a gray head.
Males have a black “mustache” that females do not. In South Dakota you get the “yellow-shafted” variety, and they have bright yellow feathers on the underside of their wings and tail.
If you see a flicker that doesn’t quite look like the yellow-shafted variety, you may be seeing a hybrid of the yellow and red, which sometimes happens in the western half of South Dakota.
Northern Flickers can be found throughout South Dakota all year, and will sometimes visit backyard suet feeders. If you have some leaf piles in the yard, you may see them digging around for bugs.
4. Red-headed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
- Length: 7.5-9.1 in
- Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5 in
Red-headed woodpeckers travel to South Dakota to breed in the spring and summer months. They will then head back to the eastern U.S. during the winter.
The red-headed woodpecker is easily identified by its completely red/crimson head, and black and white color-blocked body. They will sometimes come to suet feeders, but are less common backyard visitors than some other types of woodpeckers. Aside from suet they will also eat various nuts and fruits.
They are one of only four species of woodpeckers that actively store their food in caches for later use, their favorite being acorns and beech nuts. These woodpeckers takes it a step further though, and will cover the food up with bark or wood to better camouflage their stash.
5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
- Length: 9.4 in
- Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz
- Wingspan: 13.0-16.5 in
The red-bellied woodpecker is not very common in South Dakota. While they may be seen sporadically in the middle of the state, the best place to look for them would be the southeastern corner.
These medium-sized woodpeckers are fairly common at feeders and in backyards in their range. Attract them with suet and larger sized nuts.
Though they are described as “red-bellied” you may first notice the bright red streak along the back of their heads, and their heavily barred black and white wings. They have a plain white breast with an area of pinkish-red lower down in their “belly” area which is often not visible.
Red-bellied woodpeckers can stick their tongue out almost 2 inches past their beak. With a barbed end and sticky spit, they can lash their tongue out to snatch insects from hard to reach places.
6. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius
- Length: 7.1-8.7 in
- Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz
- Wingspan: 13.4-15.8 in
The yellow-bellied sapsucker breeds across the northeastern part of the U.S. and Canada, then winters in the southeast and Mexico. In South Dakota, you can spot them as they travel back and forth, during spring and fall migration.
At first glance they may resemble the downy woodpecker, but the they have a yellow-wash on their white feathers, and a red stripe across the top of their head. Males will also have a red throat.
They aren’t common at bird feeders since sap is their primary food source. They drill holes into maple, elm, aspen, and birch trees and collect sap with their long tongues. A row of small holes on a tree trunk is a tell-tale sign of their presence. Aside from sap they also will eat a variety of insects, some of which get trapped in the sticky sap near their wells.
7. American Three-toed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides dorsalis
- Length: 8.3-9.1 in
- Weight: 1.6-2.4 oz
- Wingspan: 14.6-15.3 in
Aside from a few other states in the west, South Dakota is actually one of the few states where you can spot the American Three-toed Woodpecker. However, they are absent from most of the state and are only found in the Black Hills National Forest.
They prefer damaged, old growth forests with lots of dead or even burned trees where they can extract insect larvae and mine for bugs easily.
The majority of woodpeckers have 4 toes, or Zygodactyl toes. However as the name suggests, these woodpeckers have just 3 toes. It is believed that the three-toed woodpecker is able to lean back further and strike a more powerful blow to its target because of the leverage having just 3 toes affords it.
Overall these woodpeckers are not common in the U.S. and are rarely seen at backyard feeders.
8. Black-backed Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Picoides arcticus
- Length: 9.1 in
- Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz
- Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in
Black-backed woodpeckers are most often found in burned forests between roughly 1 to 8 years old. The solid black plumage on their backs helps them blend into charred trees in forests where wildfires had occurred. Black-backed woodpeckers flock to these burned areas to feast on the larvae of wood-boring beetles and other insects, and will occupy these territories for years.
It is not known how these woodpeckers locate burned forests, but they will sometimes arrive just weeks after a fire. This species only has three toes, like the American three-toed woodpecker. They will also forage in un-burnt forests, following populations of bark beetles.
Find them where fires have occurred in recent years, but only in the Black Hills National Forest.
9. Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Scientific name: Melanerpes lewis
- Length: 10.2-11.0 in
- Weight: 3.1-4.9 oz
- Wingspan: 19.3-20.5 in
Lewis’s woodpeckers may be seen in far western South Dakota, mainly the Black Hills, during the spring and summer. They tend to stay in pine forests and forests that have been burned, but their populations are often unpredictable.
After breeding season they travel around looking for stores of acorns and nuts, so their fall-winter population often ends up in different locations year-to-year. They take these foods and store them in crevices to last them throughout the winter.
Unlike a lot of other woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers catch insects in midair. They have broad, rounded wings that gives their flight a graceful, crow-like quality.
Their coloration is also unique considering most woodpeckers have black and white bodies. Lewis’s are quite colorful, with a pink belly, red patch on the face, and a dark, iridescent green on their back and wings.
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How to Attract Woodpeckers
Those of us who love to watch backyard birds want to attract as many types as possible. While many songbirds are fairly easy to attract with birdseed, woodpeckers can be a little more difficult and enjoy more specific foods. Here are a few tips for what you can do to make your yard a more attractive place for woodpeckers to visit.
- Offer food they like – Many types of woodpeckers are brave enough to visit feeders. While some species will eat seeds and nuts, suet tends to be the best food for attracting woodpeckers. Be sure to get a suet feeder with a tail prop area that will help attract larger woodpecker species.
- Leave dead trees alone – Woodpeckers love dead and dying trees that are easy to bore holes in and have plenty of insect larvae for them to eat.
- Put up nest boxes – Species such as the northern flicker and pileated woodpecker have been known to use nest boxes.
- Plant native fruit bearing plants and trees – Woodpeckers may sometimes relish fruits and berries such as dogwood, serviceberry, tupelo, mountain ash, strawberry, cherry, grapes, bayberry, holly, blueberries, apples, mulberry, brambles, and elderberries.
- Don’t forget the water – Woodpeckers will use bird baths like any other birds so have a water source available, preferably with a water mover or solar fountain to help attract them.