7 Woodpeckers in Iowa (With Pictures)

7 Woodpeckers in Iowa (With Pictures)

Nestled within the heartland of the United States, Iowa’s natural landscapes play host to an array of fascinating wildlife, with woodpeckers taking center stage in both sight and sound. In this article, we delve into the captivating world of Iowa’s woodpeckers, uncovering their distinctive behaviors, ecological roles, and the enchanting rhythms they bring to the state’s forests and woodlands.

From the energetic drumming of the Downy Woodpecker to the vibrant plumage of the Red-headed Woodpecker, Iowa offers a diverse habitat that attracts a variety of these remarkable avian creatures. Beyond their mesmerizing appearances and rhythmic drumming, woodpeckers contribute significantly to the ecosystem’s balance, acting as both predators of harmful insects and as key contributors to cavity creation for other species.

1. Red-Headed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
  • Life span: 8 – 10 years
  • Size: 7.5 to 9.8 in
  • Weight: 2.0 to 3.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 14 to 17 in
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a striking and easily recognizable woodpecker species found in various parts of North America. Its name aptly describes its most prominent feature: a vibrant red head that contrasts sharply with its gleaming white belly and jet-black wings.

This woodpecker is known for its agile and acrobatic flight, often catching insects mid-air or performing impressive aerial displays during courtship. Although its population has faced declines in some regions due to habitat loss, this species can still be found in open woodlands, savannas, and even urban parks.

The Red-headed Woodpecker’s bold appearance and energetic behavior make it a captivating sight for bird enthusiasts.

A Red-Headed Woodpecker at a bird feeder

These birds are known for their affinity for open woodlands and savannas where they seek out large trees to construct their nests. Their nesting sites are chosen with care, often opting for tree cavities that offer a spacious and secure environment.

The attention to detail extends to their nest lining, where they arrange feathers, leaves, and grasses in a cozy arrangement. The result is a nesting space that reflects their vibrant personality and dedication to raising their young.

These birds are equally comfortable snatching insects mid-flight as they are foraging for acorns, nuts, and berries on the ground. Their preference for open habitats allows them to excel in catching flying insects, while their unique hunting behaviors add a touch of drama to their feeding routine. This versatility in diet showcases their adaptability and ecological role as both insectivores and seed dispersers.

The conservation journey of the Red-headed Woodpecker in Iowa is marked by collaborative efforts to preserve its specialized habitat. Historically, changes in land use and habitat loss posed challenges for these birds.

However, the bird’s charismatic appearance and ecological significance have led to focused conservation initiatives. Efforts include habitat restoration, the establishment of protected areas, and community engagement.

2. Red-Bellied Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
  • Life span: 10-12 years
  • Size: 9 to 10 in
  • Weight: 2 to 3.2 oz
  • Wingspan: 14 to 17 in
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a colourful and distinctive woodpecker species inhabiting eastern and southeastern parts of North America. Despite its name, the red on its belly is often faint and not immediately noticeable.

This bird’s striking features include a zebra-like black-and-white back pattern, a crimson crown, and a pale gray face. It’s renowned for its hearty appetite for insects, fruits, and nuts, and is known to frequent bird feeders as well.

With its distinctive call and acrobatic foraging behavior, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a common sight in a range of wooded habitats, from forests to suburban gardens.

Close-up photo of a Red-Bellied Woodpecker

These woodpeckers are known for selecting tree cavities in various environments, from woodlands to suburban areas. With a penchant for utilizing existing natural hollows or old woodpecker nests, they fashion their homes to provide a safe haven for their offspring.

The careful arrangement of soft materials ensures that their nests are both cozy and well-protected, reflecting their commitment to nurturing the next generation.

Its diet encompasses a range of food sources, including insects, fruits, nuts, and even small vertebrates. With a proclivity for visiting backyard bird feeders, these woodpeckers also partake in seeds and suet, delighting observers with their presence.

This versatile dining behavior underscores their role as ecological balancers, maintaining insect populations while embracing a varied menu that sustains them throughout the year.

The conservation story of the Red-bellied Woodpecker in Iowa speaks to the impact of habitat preservation. As landscapes change, these woodpeckers have demonstrated resilience, adapting to urban and suburban environments while maintaining their presence in woodlands.

Conservation efforts have focused on maintaining healthy forests and green spaces, ensuring the availability of suitable nesting sites and food sources.

3. Pileated Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus
  • Life span: 6-10 years
  • Size: 16-19 inches
  • Weight: 10-12 oz
  • Wingspan: 26-30 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Pileated Woodpecker is a remarkable and charismatic bird inhabiting forests across North America. Recognized as the largest woodpecker on the continent, its appearance is truly awe-inspiring. With its striking black body and bold white stripes running down its neck and face, the Pileated Woodpecker’s most distinctive feature is its striking flaming-red crest.

Its loud and resonant drumming sounds echo through the woods, marking its territory and communicating with other members of its species.

This woodpecker’s large size and distinctive appearance, along with its preference for mature forests, contribute to its iconic status among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

A Pileated Woodpecker browsing an old tree stump for food

The Pileated Woodpecker’s nesting behavior in Iowa is a testament to its role as a forest engineer. These birds are known for their preference for large, mature trees with soft wood, allowing them to excavate substantial nesting cavities.

Their excavating skills are unmatched, resulting in homes that are spacious and durable. Inside, they create a comfortable chamber, often lined with wood chips, where they raise their young. The Pileated Woodpecker’s nesting sites play a vital role in forest ecosystems, as their abandoned cavities become shelters for other wildlife.

With their powerful bills, they chip away at tree bark in search of carpenter ants, beetle larvae, and other insects. Their drumming and probing techniques uncover hidden insect delicacies, contributing to natural pest control.

Their appetite for insects is complemented by their taste for fruits and berries, adding variety to their diet. As ecosystem architects, Pileated Woodpeckers impact forest dynamics while maintaining a balanced menu.

The conservation narrative of the Pileated Woodpecker in Iowa is intertwined with the preservation of mature forests. These woodpeckers thrive in habitats with abundant dead and decaying trees, which are often essential for nesting and feeding. Conservation efforts focus on maintaining these vital components of forest ecosystems.

4. Downy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides pubescens
  • Life span: 2-5 years
  • Size: 6-7 inches
  • Weight: 1 oz
  • Wingspan: 13 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Downy Woodpecker is a charming and diminutive woodpecker species found across North America. Its range spans from southern Canada to Central America, making it one of the most widespread woodpeckers on the continent.

Recognizable by its compact size and distinct black-and-white markings, the Downy Woodpecker is often mistaken for its close relative, the Hairy Woodpecker. However, the Downy is smaller, with a shorter bill and a red spot on the back of its head. This petite bird is a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeders and can be found in a variety of wooded habitats, from forests to suburban areas.

A Downy Woodpecker sitting in the rain

When it comes to nesting, the Downy Woodpecker in Iowa is a master of cozy craftsmanship. These avian architects meticulously carve out their nests in the heart of deciduous trees, utilizing their small size to slip into crevices and cavities.

Once inside, they line their homes with soft materials, ensuring a snug and secure environment for their young. Their nesting strategy aligns with their adaptability, as they can be found nesting in city parks, woodlands, and suburban backyards.

The Downy Woodpecker’s diet in Iowa is a testament to its resourceful nature. With an adeptness at foraging, this woodpecker seeks out insects and larvae hidden beneath the bark of trees. Its petite size allows it to navigate through the nooks and crannies, extracting sustenance from the depths of the wood.

Additionally, these woodpeckers have a knack for visiting bird feeders, delighting backyard observers as they indulge in seeds and suet. Their diverse menu highlights their adaptability to both natural and human-altered landscapes.

The history of the Downy Woodpecker in Iowa is intertwined with the state’s evolving conservation efforts. Recognized as a familiar visitor to bird feeders, the Downy Woodpecker’s presence has acted as a bridge between people and nature, inspiring interest in birdwatching and habitat protection. Its success story is marked by collaborative conservation projects and the creation of green spaces that cater to its needs.

5. Hairy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides villosus
  • Life span: 5-10 years
  • Size: 7-10 inches
  • Weight: 1.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 16-20 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Hairy Woodpecker is a North American woodpecker species known for its striking black-and-white plumage and distinctive drumming sounds. This bird is found across a vast geographical range, from Alaska to Central America.

Often confused with the Downy Woodpecker due to their similar appearance, the Hairy Woodpecker is larger with a longer bill, making it easier to differentiate. Its plumage features a solid black back, white undersides, and bold white markings on its wings.

Inhabiting a variety of wooded habitats, including forests and woodlands, the Hairy Woodpecker is known for its steady foraging and rhythmic tapping on tree trunks in search of insects.

The Hairy Woodpecker sitting in a tree

These woodpeckers select sturdy trees, often mature deciduous ones, to create their nesting cavities. Their knack for detail shines as they excavate just the right spot, ensuring a secure and snug home. They skillfully line their nests with soft materials for added comfort, setting the stage for the next generation’s arrival. Their nesting preferences vary from woodlands to suburban areas, showcasing their adaptability to Iowa’s diverse landscapes.

Armed with a strong bill, it chips away at tree bark to uncover insects and larvae. The woodpecker’s insistent tapping and probing actions reveal hidden delicacies that contribute to its diet.

Furthermore, its exploration extends to backyard bird feeders, where it supplements its fare with seeds and suet. This versatility in dining preferences enables the Hairy Woodpecker to maintain a balanced diet throughout Iowa’s changing seasons.

Throughout Iowa’s conservation history, the Hairy Woodpecker has remained a steadfast presence. Its adaptable nature and wide range make it a reliable indicator of the health of local ecosystems.

Conservationists have recognized its role in pest control and the maintenance of tree health, leading to habitat preservation efforts. By ensuring that mature trees and woodlands thrive, conservation initiatives support the Hairy Woodpecker’s continued success.

6. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches
  • Weight: 2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a unique and migratory woodpecker species with a distinctive feeding behavior. This bird’s breeding range stretches across North America, from Canada to the southern United States.

Recognizable by its black-and-white plumage and striking red forehead, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a yellow wash on its belly, giving it its name. Unlike other woodpeckers, this species drills neat rows of holes in trees to feed on sap. These sap wells also attract insects, making them a valuable food source.

This woodpecker’s habitat includes a range of deciduous and mixed forests, as well as woodlands near water sources.

A close-up photo of a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

These woodpeckers chisel distinct rows of sap wells into tree bark, creating not only a reliable food source but also unique nesting cavities. Their sap wells attract insects, which become a vital part of their diet. They often select trees with flowing sap, allowing them to return to their sap wells for sustenance throughout the breeding season.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s diet in Iowa revolves around its intricate relationship with tree sap and insects. By creating sap wells, they harvest both sap and the insects drawn to it. Their specialized diet includes ants, beetles, and other insects, which become entangled in the sticky sap.

This resourcefulness extends to their winter diet, as they often visit sap wells that they created earlier in the year.

The conservation journey of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Iowa underscores the importance of preserving habitats that provide trees with flowing sap. These woodpeckers rely on trees with a consistent sap supply, often selecting certain tree species for their nesting sites. Conservation efforts include maintaining healthy tree populations and protecting their nesting and feeding areas.

7. Northern Flicker

  • Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches
  • Weight: 2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Northern Flicker is a widespread and diverse woodpecker species found across North America. Known for its distinctive “flickering” flight pattern and melodious calls, this bird has various subspecies with differing appearances. One common trait is the prominent crescent-shaped marking on its breast, which distinguishes it from other woodpeckers.

The Eastern variant features a gray face with a red nape, while the Western variant has a more extensive red mark on its nape. Northern Flickers exhibit a mix of terrestrial and arboreal behaviors, often foraging on the ground for ants and insects. These adaptable birds are equally at home in forests, grasslands, and urban areas.

A Northern Flicker visiting a bird feeder

These woodpeckers utilize tree cavities for nesting, often repurposing old nesting sites or excavating their own.

What sets them apart is their readiness to use artificial structures such as utility poles and buildings for nesting, making them a familiar sight even in urban and suburban areas. Their nests are lined with soft materials for comfort, creating a cozy haven for their chicks.

Their strong bills are adept at extracting ants and insects from the soil, showcasing their terrestrial skills. In addition to ground-dwelling delicacies, these woodpeckers also capture flying insects during their characteristic “flickering” flight pattern.

Their diet extends to fruits and berries, demonstrating their adaptability to varied food sources. As versatile feeders, Northern Flickers play a role in controlling insect populations while embracing a diverse menu.

As adaptable residents, these woodpeckers have benefitted from both natural and human-altered environments. Conservation initiatives emphasize the preservation of dead wood and the planting of native vegetation to provide essential resources.

Where to look for Woodpeckers in Iowa

Spotting Woodpeckers in Iowa is a rewarding endeavor that connects enthusiasts with the state’s vibrant avian life. To observe these skilled drummers up close, one must venture into the heart of Iowa’s woodlands, forests, and parks.

The key is to listen for their distinctive tapping sounds, a telltale sign of their presence. Observers should keep a watchful eye on tree trunks and branches, as woodpeckers often forage for insects hidden beneath the bark.

Four exceptional areas in Iowa offer optimal chances to encounter these feathered percussionists:

  • Yellow River State Forest: With its diverse habitats, this forest is home to species like the Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Trails like the Paint Creek Unit provide ample opportunities for sightings.
  • Ledges State Park: Renowned for its sandstone bluffs, this park hosts woodpeckers such as the Hairy and Northern Flicker. Hike along the trails for glimpses of these striking birds.
  • Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge is a haven for the Red-headed Woodpecker, a stunning species often spotted near open areas and wood edges.
  • Effigy Mounds National Monument: Combining cultural significance with natural beauty, this site features the Drumming Rock Trail, where you might catch sight of the Downy Woodpecker and others.

Remember to bring binoculars and a field guide to aid with identification. Also, patience is key; woodpeckers can be VERY elusive but the experience of observing their behavior and witnessing their rhythmic performances amid Iowa’s scenic landscapes is truly unmatched.


In the rich tapestry of Iowa’s natural world, woodpeckers emerge as both captivating performers and vital ecological players. Their rhythmic drumming and vibrant plumage add an enchanting note to the state’s woodlands.

Beyond aesthetics, these birds serve as nature’s pest controllers and habitat creators. As we marvel at their unique behaviors and contributions, let us embrace the call of the woodpeckers as a reminder of the intricate web of life flourishing within Iowa’s forests, fostering a deeper appreciation for the harmony they bring to the wild.

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