Woodpeckers are members of the family Picidae, order Piciformes. The approximately 217 species are found in the Americas, Eurasia and Africa. Of the twenty-two species found in North America, twelve have been identified in Saskatchewan. Woodpeckers are characterized by their tree-climbing ability: stiff tail feathers (used to prop themselves on tree trunks); bracing feet with two long toes forward and two back; pointed bills with which they peel bark or excavate nest holes; and tongues which can be extended to an amazing length. During mating season, woodpeckers use their bills to drum on trees. They nest in holes excavated in live or dead trees. Generally indifferent to the presence of people, they often allow close approach as they search for grubs and insects or dig their nest chambers.
The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is probably the best known provincial woodpecker; a large bird, it is often seen on the ground feeding on ants. There are two distinct subspecies: the yellow-shafted, golden yellow under the wings and tail; and the red-shafted of the extreme southwest, salmon-pink under wings and tail. A few remain over winter, especially where attracted to suet feeders. Hairy (Picoides villosus) and downy (P. pubescens) woodpeckers are common permanent residents throughout the wooded areas of the province. They look alike, both spotted with black and white, but the sparrow-sized downy is much smaller than the hairy. Black-backed (P. arcticus) and three-toed (P. trydactylus) woodpeckers are permanent residents of the boreal forest, generally found in trees killed by fire or insects. Never common, occasional individuals of both species turn up in the south during winter. The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), our largest woodpecker, is crow-sized with a flaming red crest; characteristic of the boreal forest, it has recently begun showing up farther south. The yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), a migratory woodpecker, is common through most of the wooded areas of the province. The red-naped sapsucker (S. nuchalis), a close relative, is found only in the Cypress Hills.
Four other species are either rare or erratic in Saskatchewan. Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), striking black, white and red birds, nest sporadically in the southern third of the province. On rare occasions (six reports in the last forty years) Lewis's woodpecker (M. lewisi) strays across the prairies from the mountains of British Columbia. The red-bellied woodpecker (M. carolinus), a bird of eastern deciduous forests, has been noted only six times in Saskatchewan, and the even rarer Williamson's sapsucker (S. thyroideus) has been seen within the borders only twice, in 1965 and 1977.
J. Frank Roy