Woodpeckers in Illinois

Woodpeckers in Illinois

Woodpeckers are found almost everywhere around the globe – anywhere where dead trees & insects are plentiful. Woodpeckers are known for their distinct adaptation – a long, powerful bill that they use both to drill for insects and to communicate with other woodpeckers.

Their tongue is very long, and the woodpecker’s tongue bone folds back into the skull to protect the bird’s brain from impact every time they thump their beak into a tree. Woodpeckers are fascinating creatures, and it’s a joy to watch one foraging for insects on the side of a tree.

The state of Illinois isn’t just home to the Chicago Cubs – it’s home to a variety of animals ranging from the Sandhill Crane to the Nine-banded Armadillo. Among the birds of this state are seven woodpeckers that call Illinois home. This guide will inform you on each woodpecker species you can find here & how to spot them in the wild.

1. Downy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens
  • Length:  14 to 18 cm (5.5 to 7.1 in)
  • Weight: 20 to 33 g (0.71 to 1.16 oz)
  • Wingspan: 25 to 31 cm (9.8 to 12.2 in)
  • Lifespan: 3-5 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Downy Woodpecker happens to be North America’s smallest woodpecker, but they definitely rank high among America’s favorites. This small, bold woodpecker isn’t afraid of humans, and sightings are fairly easy – many of them visit suet feeders!

Downy Woodpecker

They can be distinguished from the similar Hairy Woodpecker by their size alone. Males and females appear different – a red patch of feathers on the back of the bird’s head signals that you’re seeing a male.

Downy Woodpeckers are naturally found in deciduous forests, but they are known to adapt to urban environments so long as there is plentiful food. Downy Woodpeckers feast on insects primarily gleaned from picking away the bark of trees.

They are known to predate on insects harmful to crops, making them an asset to farmers. Downy Woodpeckers excavate their own tree cavities to build nests in, and this activity is performed by the breeding pair, as a sweet but functional date.

Additionally, these small birds will re-use their nesting cavity to roost in during the cold winter months.

2. Red-bellied Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
  • Length:  22.85 to 26.7 cm (9.00 to 10.51 in)
  • Weight:  2.0–3.2 oz (56–91 g)
  • Wingspan:  38 to 46 cm (15 to 18 in)
  • Lifespan: 3-6 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is one of the world’s most easily recognizable woodpeckers, but not for the reasons you might think. This species does sport a red belly like their name implies, but it is faded and easy to overlook.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

But what’s easy to spot is the species’ bright red cap, making them incredibly easy to find even from a distance. They also have a recognizable black-and-white barred back.

These woodpeckers primarily feed on arthropods (such as spiders and centipedes), but their diet can vary, and they occasionally feed on insects, seeds, and fruits.

This species is also fairly bold around humans, and they can be found in many neighborhoods lurking around bird feeders.

3. Black-backed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name:  Picoides arcticus
  • Length: 23 cm (9.1 in)
  • Weight: 2.1–3.1 oz (60–88 g)
  • Wingspan: 15.8–16.5 in (40–42 cm)
  • Lifespan: 5-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

This stunning woodpecker is black on the upper half of their body, with a barred black and white pattern on their belly. These are traits they share with other woodpeckers, but the Black-backed Woodpecker holds the unique trait of the male’s bright yellow cap.

Black-Backed Woodpecker

This medium-sized woodpecker is proficient at drilling holes into trees.

Species like the Black-backed Woodpecker create a new nesting hole with every breeding season, abandoning the previous year’s nest.

This actually benefits many other species, such as owls and squirrels, which won’t create their own cavity but will raise their young in an abandoned cavity.

4. Pileated Woodpecker

  • Scientific name:  Dryocopus pileatus
  • Length: 40 to 49 cm (16 to 19 in)
  • Weight:  225 to 400 g (7.9 to 14.1 oz)
  • Wingspan:  66 to 75 cm (26 to 30 in)
  • Lifespan: 5-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

This distinguished large woodpecker should be easy to discern from the rest of the species found here – as the largest North American woodpecker species and third largest in the world, they’re a bit heftier than most of the other species.

Pileated Woodpecker

Males and females share the species’ pointed crest, but males are notably larger than females. Males also have a red stripe that runs alongside the beak; in females, this marking is present, but black in color.

While Pileated Woodpeckers share a favorite food with other woodpeckers – insects – they are omnivorous and will take a variety of different foods. They are known to safely eat the berries of the poison ivy plant.

The nesting holes created by these species are so large that, when abandoned, they are used by animals as large as ducks, Great Horned Owls, and even raccoons.

5. Northern Flicker

  • Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
  • Length:  28–36 cm (11–14 in)
  • Weight:  86 to 167 g (3 to 5.7 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42–54 cm (16-21 in)
  • Lifespan: 7-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Northern Flicker is a primarily brown woodpecker that can be discerned by their deep black spots and the bright red spot on the backs of their heads.

Northern Flicker

This handsome bird blends in easily on the ground more so than in the trees, but this works for them; they’re one of the only woodpecker species known to frequently ground-feed. One of this woodpecker’s favorite foods is ants, and they can form almost half of the bird’s diet.

They are also known to engage in an activity known as anting, where birds rub ants against their feathers; it’s believed that though this looks strange, this wards off more harmful insects such as feather mites.

Northern Flickers drum against wood or hard objects to communicate. To ward off potential invaders from entering their territory, they thump their beak against hard surfaces, creating a loud knocking sound.

n the presence of humans, Northern Flickers may choose a metal surface to knock on in order to create the loudest sound possible.

6. Red-headed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
  • Length: 19 to 25 cm (7.5 to 9.8 in)
  • Weight:  56 to 97 g (2.0 to 3.4 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42.5 cm (16.7 in)
  • Lifespan: 5-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern (previously Near Threatened)

These delightful medium-sized birds are a delight to watch, and easy to discern from other woodpeckers. The Red-headed Woodpecker is three solid colors – the head, as you might have guessed, is red, the back is black, and the belly is white.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

These solid blocks of color serve to separate the Red-headed Woodpecker from the many other barred or striped woodpeckers on this list.

This woodpecker is an adventurous eater. While most woodpecker species are omnivorous, this bird takes it to the extreme, eating bird eggs and small rodents.

For the most part, however, they eat berries and insects like most other woodpeckers. Red-headed Woodpeckers also cache their food to save through winter like a squirrel.

7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius
  • Length: 19 to 21 cm (712 to 814 in)
  • Weight:  50.3 g (1.77 oz)
  • Wingspan: 34 to 40 cm (1312 to 1534 in)
  • Lifespan: 4-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has an unusual name, but an even more unusual habit. Unlike other woodpeckers, which usually choose to nest in dead trees, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker prefers to carve out their nests directly into a living tree.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

This can sometimes injure or kill the tree. While this is fairly rare, it’s led to this bird having an undeserved reputation as a troublemaker.

While this bird does sport its namesake yellow belly, you’re unlikely to ever see it; the bird is primarily spotted facing tree trunks as they feed, obscuring their yellow mark.

You’re more likely to find a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by looking for a black and white bird with a red cap.

Where To See Illinois’s Hawks

Woodpeckers are beautiful and unique birds to observe, but thankfully, they usually aren’t too hard to spot. You’ll likely see some friendlier species, like the Downy Woodpecker, browsing through offerings at local bird feeding stations.

Additionally, even if your sight isn’t the best, it’s fairly easy to overhear an active woodpecker. If you follow their characteristic drumming for long enough, you may spot the bird, too.

Not sure where to start when looking to view Illinois’s state woodpeckers?

Many Illinois state parks have safe trails designed for optimal viewing of wildlife; additionally, they usually have a guide to the species present at each park, so you can know what you’re looking for.

Local Audubon groups usually have their own chapters, in addition to leading guided tours. If you’re new to birdwatching, you may want to attend a guided tour for a little extra help.

Tours are led by experienced birdwatchers, so they’re more likely to spot birds that newcomers to birdwatching might not notice. If you’re looking for a bird that’s uncommon in your area a guided tour is an especially good idea.

Want to encourage woodpeckers to take up residence in your own neighborhood?

There’s several ways to encourage woodpecker populations to grow in your area. For one, don’t use insecticides.

Almost all woodpecker species make their primary food source insects. Woodpeckers in your neighborhood who stop by your feeder for a suet snack may also pick insects out of your yard, and if you’ve used insecticide, you may poison them.

Woodpeckers and other insect-eating species are great natural pest control, so encouraging their presence can lower your outdoor bug population. 

Woodpeckers also may use nest boxes. Nest boxes that woodpeckers prefer are large and placed higher than most bird nest boxes. Additionally, leaving dead trees on your property increases the chances a woodpecker will visit.

Dead trees provide both potential nesting sites and plentiful insects for woodpeckers to feed on.


The state of Illinois isn’t always recognized for biodiversity, but under a closer look, this state is home to a variety of fascinating animals.

The endangered Black Rail and near-threatened Greater Prairie Chicken are just two birds aspiring birdwatchers can hope to spot in this state. Illinois is a great destination for aspiring wildlife photographers or journalists, or just those with a love for the great outdoors.

Woodpeckers serve an important purpose in the ecosystem. While woodpeckers can be fascinating to learn about and observe, they’re also important to the health of their environments.

Without a healthy population of woodpeckers, you’re likely to see an abundance of potentially detrimental insects like ants and moths, so encouraging woodpeckers’ presence in your area is a good thing.

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