The Woodpeckers of Eliza Howell Park

In January 2018, I am starting my 14th year of recorded bird walks in Eliza Howell Park, but it doesn’t take all these records to know that, with so many birds migrating to warmer climates for the winter, January and February are the months with the fewest number of species. Even in the heart of winter, however, and far from any bird feeders, there are some species that I regularly see.

Two of the small number of species that I see every January are woodpeckers – the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. When first seen, the Red-bellied Woodpecker looks like it should be called “red-headed” (more about this below), but sometimes, as in this picture, the so-called red belly is noticeable.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

Photo by Margaret Weber

The red-bellied is bright, loud, and large enough to be noticed easily, especially when there are no leaves on the trees. The smaller, quieter, less bright Downy Woodpecker is more likely to be lower and closer to the observer.


Photo by Margaret Weber

There are, in total, 6 different kinds of woodpeckers that occur in the park almost every year. Three are found year-round: Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker (not pictured) is slightly larger than the Downy but otherwise looks almost exactly like it. It is less common at Eliza Howell, though it does breed here.

In the spring and again in the fall, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrates through the area, seen for a few days only. It too has a questionable name – the “yellow bellied” part, not the “sapsucker” part. The yellow is somewhat visible in adults, but is not the most obvious characteristic. This picture is of an immature, without the red on the head or throat and without noticeable yellow, but it shows clearly the line of holes that the sapsucker makes to collect sap. It revisits the holes to lap up the sap and to eat any insects that may get caught there.

immature yellow bellied

Photo by Margaret Weber

The most striking species of woodpecker to be seen in the park is also the most rare and the least predictable. The Red-headed Woodpecker is not very common in the Detroit area generally and shows up in Eliza Howell only about once a year, for a few days. In 2017, one was present in May (when this picture was taken) and one was also seen for several days in the summer.

(When someone asks why the “red-bellied” is not called the “red-headed,” I suggest that probably this bird has a priority claim to the name.)

redheaded woodpecker EH 0517

Photo by Margaret Weber

The 6th woodpecker species in the park is the Northern Flicker. The flicker is a summer resident, arriving in the spring and leaving in the fall and is the fourth woodpecker that nests here. It is different from most other woodpeckers in that it often feeds on the ground, consuming large numbers of ants.

flicker colors

Photo by Margaret Weber

Woodpeckers typically drill holes in dead trees for nesting. These holes have quite small openings, but are deep. In 2017, I watched, over a period of days, as Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers drilled holes in trees about 100 yards apart. I watched as a red-bellied tried to drive a flicker away from the tree where the flicker was drilling its hole. I later watched as, in an different part of the park, red-bellieds and flickers were both carrying feed to their young in nests about 15-20 feet apart in the same dead tree. Interesting interactions between the two species.

In this picture, a Red-bellied Woodpecker is “spitting” out chips from the nesting hole it is making.

red bellied yuck

Photo by Margaret Weber

I started these thoughts by looking forward to seeing woodpeckers in winter. I end by looking backward to 2017. It is common, I suppose, for a nature student to think in terms of annual cycles.