Missouri (MO) is located in a part of the United States with a convergence of bioregions. Therefore, the state contains an extensive range of habitats.
Those habitats include bottomland swamps, hardwood forests, upland forests, tallgrass prairies, pine-oak-hickory forests, and wetlands that each attract an abundance of bird species, adding up to a state total of over 400 species.
Amongst the host of species, one finds the woodpeckers, sapsuckers and flickers that belong to the Picidae family. Woodpeckers are named after their behaviour of hammering their beaks against trees and other objects. Sapsuckers and flickers are also woodpeckers but have different common English names.
Woodpeckers use their solid chisel-shaped beaks to drill holes in dead and dying trees to make nests and search for insects and sap. They have many interesting features that allow them to facilitate this behaviour.
Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet – meaning they have two front and two back toes. They hitch their way up the sides of trees and other objects, staying vertical, keeping their heads upright and leaning away from the tree.
That is made possible by the stiff tail feathers they lean against and the back toes used to support their bodies. Their nostrils are covered with feathers, preventing the entry of dust and wood chips during pecking and hammering.
Woodpeckers have the longest tongue-to-body size ratio of any animal. Their tongues are often barbed, or they have sticky saliva that aids with catching insects and collecting sap found in the holes they drill.
The long tongue is curled between the skull and the skin at the back of the head.
Woodpeckers are the only creatures in the animal kingdom that produce sounds using external objects, i.e. not a part of their own body.
Woodpeckers drum by knocking their beaks against the side of an object, such as a tree, to attract potential mates, find food or communicate their territory.
When a woodpecker is drumming or hammering for food, shockwaves are sent through the bird’s entire body, starting at the head and moving through the body. They strike the surface at a speed of seven metres per second, which causes their heads to slow down at approximately 1200 times the gravitational force. That would cause injuries in most animals, but woodpeckers have unique anatomical features that prevent injuries.
They have specialised bone structures in the beak, tongue, neck and skull, making them more robust than the bones in other birds.
They also have less fluid surrounding the brain, which stops the brain from moving too much while hammering and the long tongue wrapped around the skull acts as a shock absorber.
Today, eight species of woodpeckers can be seen in Missouri, although historically, two additional species could be seen in the state. The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) has traditionally been seen in the state, but it is now recognised as locally extinct or extirpated.
Historically, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) occurred in Missouri, but it is now considered extinct. This species was listed as critically endangered and has not been seen since 2004 despite search parties going out to relocate the species.
In the following text, we will look at the eight woodpecker species currently still possible to see in the state and possible locations to look for them.
Types Of Woodpeckers in Missouri:
1. Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Melanerpes carolinus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 9.5 in (24 cm)
- Weight – 2.6 oz (73.5 g)
- Wingspan – 16.5 in (42 cm)
- Status – Least Concern
The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is a resident species and the most commonly seen woodpecker in the state. The name of this medium-sized woodpecker can be misleading since it has a buffy-white belly that sometimes shows a very faint red wash.
The only red-coloured areas on the males of this species are the crown and nape. The female only has red on the nape, and the back is barred black and white on both sexes. This woodpecker has a white rump that is usually only visible in flight.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker commonly produces a rolling high-pitched ‘churr’ or ‘kwirr’ sound.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is widespread across the eastern United States, occurring in woodlands, forests, and suburban areas – especially those with deciduous trees.
This species is not a picky nester, as it makes cavity nests in dead and live trees, but only in the dead branches of the live trees. This woodpecker also uses human-placed fence posts to nest in.
A mating pair often nests in the same tree annually, but a new nest is usually excavated beneath the old nest every year.
The female lays between two and six eggs on the residual wood chips left behind from the nest excavation. The female produces up to three broods in a season, and the eggs are incubated for twelve days.
This woodpecker feeds primarily on insects, spiders, and other arthropod types. Plant matter such as pine cones, nuts, acorns and seeds are also part of this species’ regular diet.
In Autumn and Winter, this woodpecker may eat various fruits too. This species is a frequent visitor to bird feeders, and suet is a good attractant.
2. Red-headed Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Melanerpes erythrocephalus
- Lifespan – 9 years (average) 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 7.5-9.1 in (19-23 cm)
- Weight – 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g)
- Wingspan – 16.5 in (42 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is one of the few resident red-headed birds in Missouri. It is a medium-sized Woodpecker with a red head, a white belly and a black back with contrasting white wing patches.
The Red-headed Woodpecker makes a range of harsh calls, but their most frequently heard call is a rough-sounding, shrill ‘tchur’. It sounds superficially similar to the Red-bellied Woodpecker call, but it is less rolling and has a lower pitch.
This woodpecker species is mainly found in deciduous woodlands that contain oak and beech trees. They are also found in sparsely treed grasslands, forest edges, swamps, dead tree groves, parks, farmland, and recently cleared areas.
They excavate nesting holes in dead trees, dead limbs of live trees or in buildings and utility poles. They sometimes use naturally-formed cavities as nests too. This woodpecker species reuses the same nesting cavity annually – an unusual trait for woodpeckers.
The female produces one or two sets of broods containing three to ten eggs each per season. The eggs are incubated for 12 to 14 days before hatching.
Red-headed Woodpeckers predominantly feed on fruits and seeds, while the rest of their diet comprises insects.
They are unusual for woodpeckers as they can efficiently catch insects on the wing and don’t search for insect larvae under bark or inside trees like other woodpeckers. Occasionally, Red-headed Woodpeckers will visit suet bird feeders in winter.
3. Pileated Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Dryocopus pileatus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 44,5 cm (17,5 in)
- Weight – 11 oz (300 g)
- Wingspan – 28 in (70.5 cm)
The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a resident in the state and one of the largest woodpecker species in North America. Their large size, black body, red crest and white stripes on the face and neck distinguish this species from others.
This species is sexually dimorphic since the male has a red cheek stripe, which is absent on the female, and the female has a black forecrown.
Pileated Woodpeckers are very vocal birds. Their typical call is a loud series of piping notes.
Pileated Woodpeckers occur in mixed deciduous and coniferous woodlands and mature deciduous woodlands. In some areas, they may appear in young forests containing big dead trees and decaying wood.
Suburban areas containing woodland may also hold Pileated Woodpeckers. This species chooses dead trees for nesting sites and excavates its own cavities that are not used annually.
The female only lays one brood per season. The clutch contains between three and five eggs incubated for 15 to 18 days.
Pileated Woodpeckers feed almost exclusively on carpenter ants, while other insects, fruit and nuts are eaten to supplement their diet. They are irregular visitors to bird feeders with suet and seeds.
4. Downy Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Dryobates pubescens
- Lifespan – 2 years (average) 11 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 6.3 in (16 cm)
- Weight – 26.5 g (0.9 oz)
- Wingspan – 11 in (28 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is a small resident bird that has an unusually short beak for a woodpecker. The head has black and white stripes, and the nape is red on males.
The underparts are white, and the upper parts are primarily black, with white-spotted wings and a white back. They look similar to the Hairy Woodpecker but can be distinguished by the white spots on the outer tail feathers, which are absent on the Hairy Woodpecker.
The whinny call of the Downy Woodpecker is a series of shrill, rough-sounding notes that become lower pitched near the end.
The call is similar to the Hairy Woodpecker call, but the pitch of the latter’s call remains constant near the end. They also produce a sharp ‘pik’ note, similar to a sound made by the Hairy Woodpecker, but it is higher pitched.
The Downy Woodpecker favours living in deciduous woodlands but also occurs in most open wooded areas. It is also found in suburban areas, parks and orchards. This species nests in dead trees or dead areas of live trees.
The nesting cavity is usually excavated on the underside of a stub that extends away from the trunk. They often chose sites where the wood contains a fungus, making excavating the cavity easier. The female lays a single clutch of three to eight eggs each season and incubates for 12 days.
The primary food source of the Downy Woodpecker is insects, but they also eat many berries, acorns and grains. They are the most likely woodpecker to see at feeders, where they are commonly seen, particularly those with suet and sunflower seeds.
5. Hairy Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Leuconotopicus villosus
- Lifespan – 15 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 8.6 in (22 cm)
- Weight – 2.4 oz (67 g)
- Wingspan – 14.5 in (37 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) is a widespread species across North America and is an altitudinal migrant. This medium-sized woodpecker looks very similar to the smaller Downy Woodpecker.
It has a black and white striped head, and the males have a red patch on the back of the head. The upper parts are black, with a white back and white spots on the wings. The underparts are white.
This species may be separated from the Downy Woodpecker by the lack of white spots on the dark outer tail feathers.
The typical call produced by the Hairy Woodpecker is a sharp ‘peek’ note that sounds similar to the Downy Woodpecker but has a lower pitch.
This woodpecker also creates another call similar to the whinnying call made by the Downy Woodpecker. It differs by having a constant pitch throughout the series.
The Hairy Woodpecker occurs in mature woodland that contains medium and large trees, parks, woodlots and suburban areas. Like many other woodpeckers, this species creates a cavity in a dead stub of a live tree or a dead tree – on the underside.
Females lay a single brood of eggs per season, consisting of between three and six eggs incubated for 11 to 12 days.
Hairy Woodpeckers feed almost exclusively on insects, particularly larvae and pupae, which comprise over three-quarters of their diet. They also feed on arachnids, millipedes, fruit and seeds. They are attracted to feeders with sunflower seeds and suet – which they commonly visit.
6. Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Scientific name – Melanerpes lewis
- Lifespan – 3 years (average) 10 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 10.6 in
- Weight – 4 oz
- Wingspan – 19.9 in
- Status – Least concern
Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) is a very rare woodpecker with only a handful of records in Missouri. It occurs in the western United States.
It is a large woodpecker that is dark overall. It has a red face, which usually appears dark because of the lighting, a pink belly, a green back and a grey collar.
Lewis’s Woodpecker is a quiet species, but when they call, they produce a grating ‘churr’ repeated up to eight times in a row.
Lewis’s Woodpecker occurs in woodlands near streams, orchards and forests of dead trees. They nest primarily in dead trees.
They do not usually excavate their own nests but rather use holes and crevices made naturally or excavated by other woodpeckers. The female lays five to nine eggs in the single brood of the season. The eggs are incubated for 12 to 16 days.
Lewis’s Woodpeckers feed differently from most woodpeckers by catching insects in the air and picking them from the side of a tree instead of probing for insects. They also feed on fruit, grains and nuts. They are not usually attracted to feeders.
7. Northern Flicker
- Scientific name – Colaptes auratus
- Lifespan – 9 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 12.5 in (32 cm)
- Weight – 4.4 oz (126.5 g)
- Wingspan – 19 in (48 cm)
The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a partially migratory species that may migrate south from Missouri in Winter, but most birds remain year-round. It is a sizeable brownish woodpecker with two distinct subspecies.
The males of both subspecies have black-barred, brownish-grey upper parts, a white rump, black-spotted buffy underparts, and a black bib. The yellow-shafted subspecies is recognised by having yellow flight and tail feathers. It also has a black moustache and a red nape.
The red-shafted subspecies has a red moustache, a grey nape and red flight and tail feathers. The females of both subspecies share features with the males but lack the moustache.
Northern Flickers produce a noisy, high-pitched, rolling rattle that increases and decreases in volume over approximately eight seconds. The call is relatively similar to the Pileated Woodpecker’s call.
Northern Flickers live in woodlands, open fields with scattered trees, forest edges, parks and suburban areas. They excavate nesting cavities in large branches and tree trunks of dead or infected trees.
Northern Flickers often use the same nest annually. Females usually lay one clutch of eggs, numbering between five and eight in a season. She incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days.
Northern Flickers feed unusually for woodpeckers – spending most of their time on the ground looking for insects. Fruits, berries, seeds and snails are also eaten. They hammer into the ground, as most woodpeckers would do on trees. They do not usually visit feeders.
8. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Scientific name – Sphyrapicus varius
- Lifespan – 7 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 7.9 in (20 cm)
- Weight – 1.7 oz (50.3 g)
- Wingspan – 14.6 in (37 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) is a migratory species that visits Missouri in the winter when they leave their breeding grounds in the north.
This woodpecker is reasonably small, with a dark back, a red-crown, white patches on the side of the wings and a black-and-white patterned face. The underparts range in colour from whitish to pale yellow. Males have a red throat, while females have a white throat.
The typical call made by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is an abrasive, nasal mew.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers occur in young forests in the breeding grounds but may be found in other habitats during the winter months.
They can be found in hardwood and softwood forests of any maturity in winter. They do, however, not live in stands of conifers. They often nest in live, fungus-infected trees in which they excavate cavities.
They may reuse the same nesting hole for many years. The females lay four to six eggs in a season and incubate them for 10 to 13 days.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers feed mainly on sap – as their name suggests. They have an unusual behaviour amongst woodpeckers, as they drill holes in the side of wounded or sick trees containing high sugar concentrations in the sap to make sap wells.
They usually drill holes in horizontal lines on trees, such as maple and birch trees. They also feed on insects and arachnids that they find under the bark of trees. They visit feeders infrequently, but suet may attract them occasionally.
Where to Find Woodpeckers in Missouri
Woodpeckers in Missouri may be found throughout the state at all times of the year. Some species are migratory or nomadic, so the number of individuals fluctuates throughout the year depending on the season.
MO Woodpeckers favour wooded areas containing dead and decaying trees, so those areas would be an excellent place to start searching for them. When birding, look for signs of drilling in the form of holes in the side of trees and logs.
For example, the Pileated Woodpecker makes large rectangular holes measuring up to 30 centimetres in length that can be easily seen. Woodpeckers have distinct calls and drumming behaviour that may be heard from a distance away and help locate the bird. Missouri has a range of top birding sites worth visiting.
A day of birding in the Show Me State is certainly worthwhile since many of the common woodpeckers may be seen over a short time, and the host of other bird species would keep one well and truly entertained.
Woodpeckers are fascinating birds – in many aspects, from their behaviour to appearance. They are often popular yard birds and may be attracted to feeders using seeds, fruit, nuts or suet.
The Missouri woodpeckers, like most woodpecker species, have decreased in population size over the last several decades because they are affected by habitat loss – mainly deforestation. They rely on dead and decaying trees for nesting and foraging, so the burning and use of dead trees may influence them.
The signs that woodpeckers are vulnerable to habitat destruction can be seen in the form of the Ivory Woodpecker, which is now officially extinct due to habitat loss. That emphasises the importance of conserving protected areas that these beautiful birds call home and protecting them from habitat loss and destruction.
Woodpeckers are ecosystem engineers that create cavities in trees that many animals, such as wrens, flycatchers, bluebirds, tree swallows, Wood Ducks, and small owl species, use for nesting and shelter.
Woodpeckers are an essential element of pest control in some areas. Sometimes, large flocks are attracted to swarms of destructive pests that cause structural and agricultural damage.
Next time you hear drumming on a tree in your yard or out in the wilderness, take a moment to appreciate these marvellous, well-adapted creatures.