New Mexico Birds: Piciformes


All of the local members of Piciformes are in one family, Picidae (woodpeckers and flickers). They are presented in alphabetical order by genus and species.

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

This is a common bird in Albuquerque, from the Rio Grande up to the tops of the local mountains. As they fly away from you, look for a prominent white patch at the rump.


Like their close relatives the woodpeckers, flickers brace themselves against trunks and branches using stiff tail feathers. Male northern flickers have red "moustaches"; females have tan-to-gray ones you may not notice. Both have tails with a lot of red when seen from below. 


The juvenile I saw in August 2022, possibly a female, spent many minutes inspecting me.


The final image, of a feather, shows why northern flickers in this part of the country were once known as "red-shafted flickers."


Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

In New Mexico, acorn woodpeckers are usually found in the mountains along the New Mexico-Arizona state line. It's unusual to see them near Albuquerque. The faces are often described as clown faces. The females have black foreheads, while the males have white foreheads.


Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris)

Ladder-backs aren't the only woodpecker I see in Albuquerque, but they're by far the most common. Some of these photos were taken in my former back yard, where they helped themselves to suet or to the hummingbirds' sugar water.


Key characteristics to look for: the banded black and white back and the light face marked with black lines. If the top of the head is red, the individual is a male. If it's black, you're looking at a female. My two photos from January 2021 are of the same male, one when his red crest is down and the other when it's up. My two photos from September 2021 are a repeat of that pattern.


Two of my photos are of a female hanging on desert willow seed pods and pecking her way into them. A few days later, I caught a different female trying to peck her way into pecans.


Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Please see my comments on Hairy Woodpeckers, below. Downy Woodpeckers are distinguished (barely) by having dark spots on their white outer tail feathers and by having prominent tufts of white down at the bases of their upper beaks. You can see these attributes in my photo from November 2020. Downy Woodpeckers have shorter beaks, proportionally, than Hairy Woodpeckers, but lotsa luck estimating beak length when you see a bird.


The two photographs from May 2020 illustrate how challenging it can be to distinguish the two species. In one photo you seem to have a good view of the outer tail feathers, and no black spots are to be seen. In the other photo, of the same bird, the actual outermost tail feather isn't hidden by the next one in, and two spots (indicated by arrows) appear. Same story with my photo from January 2021. It shows the spots, but in most of the photographs I took of that bird, the outermost tail feathers were similarly concealed. I'll throw in a not-very-good picture from January 2022, because it shows the black on the outer tail feathers more clearly than in my other photos.


Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

 If you don't see much difference between Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers in my pictures, I'm not surprised. When it comes to these two species the differences are so minor, I'm often unsure of my IDs. Hairy Woodpeckers have longer beaks, there's less white fuzz at the bases of their beaks, and they lack dark spots along the white outer edges of their tails.


Due to a rare condition, insufficient melanin, a few hairy woodpeckers have feathers that are partly brown. My March 2023 photo of a female and my February 2024 photo of a male show this condition.


Red-Naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)

When I was at Capulin Spring in June 2023, a woodpecker with a lot of red on his chin began peering at me from behind a tree trunk. You can see him in the thumbnail to the left. He then flew down to the water, which is when I got the photos that appear above.


Like other woodpeckers, sapsuckers drill holes into trees, but their main goal is to create little wells of sap that they can feed on. As opposed to "regular" woodpeckers, which are mainly hunting for insects. I know that my photos show a male because of the impressively all-red chin.


The only sapsucker most people have heard of is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Those look very similar to the red-naped, but rarely make it to New Mexico. You can see photos of a yellow-bellied sapsucker in Albuquerque on my rare birds page.