Woodpeckers Of Ohio – From Common To Rare

Woodpeckers Of Ohio – From Common To Rare

The buckeye state boasts an incredibly diverse landscape and a wide range of habitats for birds. The vast open fields, marshes, wetlands, lakes, woodlands, and forests makes for a birding wonderland. Ohio is one of the best places to see birds year-round in the United States.

Among the woodland and forest species are the woodpeckers. Woodpeckers, wrynecks, and sapsuckers belong to the Picidae family along with toucans, barbets, honeyguides, jacamars, and puffbirds. Woodpeckers are dependent on dead and decaying trees. They prey on many insect species that dead trees attract and rely on the softening trunks and branches to excavate their nests.

They are known for their hammering of trees and other objects with their bills – a characteristic behavior for which they are named. Aside from nest excavation and drilling holes to forage for insects, woodpeckers use the drumming noises to communicate. The reverberation can often be heard from miles away.

Spotting Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are small to medium-sized birds. Their plumage is often bold, ranging in contrasting shades of black, white, red, brown, olive, and yellow. Many species are crested.

Woodpeckers are generally easy to spot in-flight as they have a distinctive undulating flight pattern characterized by a swooping glide broken by a rapid flutter.

Unique Features Of Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers have long bills that are thick, strong, and chiseled. Their tongues are long and sticky with a bristled tip to facilitate extracting insects from trees. A woodpeckers’ tongue also functions as a shock absorber. It has an exceptionally long hyoid bone (tongue bone) that wraps around the skull through an internal cavity, cushioning it from the blows of the drumming. The skull of a woodpecker also has special adaptations to prevent brain damage.

Unique features of woodpeckers

Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet whereby two toes point forward and two point backward. This enables them to perch vertically on tree trunks while they go about their drilling, drumming, and foraging activities. Other features that aid their lifestyle include a nictating membrane over the eyes that function as goggles, protecting them from debris, and tiny slit-like nostrils covered with bristly feathers for the same purpose.

Woodpeckers are widespread birds across the world. They inhabit a wide range of woody environments, such as forests, woodlands, wooded scrublands, woodlots, parks, farmlands, and residential areas.

Although eleven species of woodpeckers have been sighted in Ohio, some are far rarer than others, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, which may very likely be extinct, and the red-naped sapsucker that has only been encountered a few times. Let’s learn about the woodpeckers you may encounter in the state of Ohio.

Common Species Of Woodpeckers In Ohio

1. 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 is the smallest woodpecker species in North America and also the most abundant.

Its plumage is pied black and white. It has a black head with two white bars on either side. Its wings are black with white spots, and it has a white back and white underparts. The male has a red patch on the head. Juveniles have a red cap. Downy woodpeckers are agile little birds often seen scurrying about. They are very similar in appearance to the hairy woodpecker.

Downy Woodpecker

The most common call of the downy woodpecker is a short, sharp, four-note pik. Its non-vocal drumming is somewhat slower than other woodpecker species. Downy woodpeckers inhabit deciduous forests, open woodlands, and brushy woodland edges.

Insects make up most of their diet, but they also eat plant foods such as seeds, grains, berries, and nuts. They forage trees both on the surface and by drilling beneath. Typical insect prey of the downy woodpecker includes ant, caterpillars, and beetle larvae. The downy woodpecker is a natural predator o many agricultural pests such as corn borers, bark, and apple borers.

Populations of downy woodpeckers are stable. They are resilient against deforestation as they are able to thrive in young forests.

Where to look for the downy woodpecker: Look for them in deciduous trees in open woodlands, orchards, parks, fields, and suburban backyards. They are known to frequent bird feeders during winter and can often be seen among mixed-species flocks.

2. 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 is an attractive bird with striking coloration. It has black upperparts white bars and grey underparts with a faint, almost unnoticeable reddish tinge on the belly. A more prominent feature is the bright red cap of the male. The female has a red nape and a red patch above the bill. The red-bellied woodpecker can sometimes be confused with the closely related red-headed woodpecker, but the latter has a much deeper red head.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are highly vocal birds. In addition to the drumming noises, they produce a range of vocalizations from a loud trill to a repetitive churr-churr-churr. Red-bellied Woodpeckers inhabit woodlands and forests.

They mainly feed on arthropods, including insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. But they also eat plant foods such as seeds and nuts. Red-bellied woodpeckers are common in Ohio. They have a stable global population that has increased over a vast and expanded range. The species does well around human-populated areas.

Where to look for the red-bellied Woodpecker in Ohio: Find them near forests and residential areas with large trees. They are regular visitors to backyard feeders.

3. 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 is easily mistaken with the downy woodpecker, even though the hairy woodpecker is larger with a longer bill, it can be difficult to distinguish. A good tip is to look at the outer tail feather which is spotted in the downy woodpecker and plain white in the hairy woodpecker.

The plumage and size of hairy woodpeckers vary across subspecies. Birds in the northern regions are typically larger. The coloration of the underparts ranges from white to dirty-brown and eastern subspecies have thicker facial stripes and are spottier than those in the far west. Hairy woodpeckers in Ohio are white below, with extensive white spots on the wings and prominent facial stripes. The common call of the hairy woodpecker is a sharp, low-pitched peek. They also produce a rattling whinny.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpeckers mostly eat insects. They are important predators of notorious pests such as bark beetles, corn borers, and crop-destroying moths, significantly curbing infestations. Hairy woodpeckers also eat ants, bees, wasps, spiders, and other arthropods. A small portion of their diet is made up of plant foods such as seeds and berries.

Hairy woodpeckers inhabit mature deciduous forests, forest edges, plantations, and open woodlands. It is a widespread and thriving species. However, forest fragmentation may pose a threat in the future. They also face competition with European starlings for nesting sites.

Where to look for the hairy woodpecker in Ohio: They occur throughout the state but are more common in the western farm areas. Look for them in woodlots, parks, cemeteries, recently burned forests, and decaying stands as these attract multitudes of bark beetles drawing in hairy woodpeckers by the droves. They also occur in suburban areas and occasionally visit backyard feeders.

4. 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 is a large and distinctive species. It is one of the largest species of woodpeckers in North America. Its plumage is mostly black with white stripes extending from the face down either side of the throat and a dark red crest. Males have a red stripe running down the throat.

Pileated woodpeckers inhabit large tracts of mature forests, particularly hardwoods, deciduous and mixed woodlands, woodlots, and parks with ample large trees. Pileated woodpeckers are important predators of carpenter ants. They also prey on other ants, termites, wood-boring beetle larvae, flies, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. Plant foods they eat include seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries.

Pileated Woodpecker

Did you know? Woodpeckers, such as the pileated woodpecker enjoy berries that are poisonous to other animals such as those of poison ivy.

The pileated woodpecker is a widespread and thriving species owing to its ability to survive in a wide range of wooded habitats, including around human habitations. They do, however, face competition for nesting sites with other species such as European starlings, bluebirds, and other woodpeckers.

Where to look for the pileated woodpecker in Ohio: They are more common in the eastern and southern forests but also occur in large tracts of woodlands in the west. Look for them in reforested areas and young forests, especially those with a fair amount of large, dead trees. They can also be seen in woody suburban areas.

Seasonal Species Of Woodpeckers To Look Out For In Ohio

5. 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, also known as the common flicker is a medium-sized bird. It falls under the Colaptes genus in the woodpecker family.

The plumage varies across subspecies. Overall, it is brown above with black bars and beige below with black spots and a distinctive black crescent shape on the upper breast. It has a white rump visible in flight. The underwings and undertail are golden yellow (in western birds, they are red). Males have red stripes extending outwards from the base of the bill resembling a mustache. The northern flicker produces a cackle-like ki ki ki ki, call.

Northern Flicker

They inhabit woodlands and forest edges. They also occur around wetlands, swamps, marshes, and open fields with large, scattered trees. Unusual of woodpeckers, the northern flicker often nests in holes excavated by other birds.

Northern flickers mainly feed on insects, particularly beetles, ants, and ant larvae they forage on the ground or drill for underground. They also eat plant materials such as seeds, fruit, and berries, including the berries of poison ivy and poison oak. Although they are widespread, populations of northern flickers are on the decline primarily due to habitat loss.

Where to look for the northern flick in Ohio: Northern flickers are around during the summer. Find them in open woodlands, forest edges, and suburban areas.

6. Red-Headed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name – Melanerpes erythrocephalus
  • Lifespan – 3 years (average) 9 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 8.6 in (22 cm)
  • Weight – 2.7 oz (76 g)
  • Wingspan – 16.7 in (42.5 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

This striking red-headed woodpecker is closely related to the red-bellied woodpecker. It is a medium-sized bird with a boldly contrasting plumage of black, white, and red. Its back and wings are black with white secondary feathers, and it is snow-white below. It has a dark red head and neck for which it is named. Males and females are alike, and juveniles have a grey head instead of red.

Red-headed woodpeckers breed in deciduous woodlands, farmlands, orchards, wooded grasslands, and forest edges. They also make use of destroyed habitats such as burned areas and deforested clearings. During winter, they inhabit deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-headed woodpeckers consume a large number of plant foods which make up the majority of their diet. These woodpeckers are adept at catching insects in flight. They also forage on the ground and in trees for seeds, nuts, fruits, and insects. Occasionally, they may also take rodents and the eggs of other birds.

Did you know? Red-headed woodpeckers are known to store food for later consumption. They cache nuts and seeds and even shove insects in cracks and crevices. They cover their stashes with pieces of bark.

Population numbers of red-headed woodpeckers have declined drastically due to habitat loss, inadequate nesting sites, and low food supply. They were listed as “near-threatened” but have been re-classified as “least concern” following habitat management initiatives that helped stabilize the overall population.

Where to look for the red-headed woodpecker: They are more numerous in the summer as northern populations migrate south for the winter. They are also more prevalent in western Ohio and can be found in scattered woodlots, open areas with suitable trees, agricultural areas, and forest plantations. Listen for their call, which is a high-pitched, shrill tchur. They also frequent garden bird feeders.

7. 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 is a medium-sized bird belonging to the Sphyrapicus genus of the woodpecker family. It is named for the yellow tinge on the belly. It has black upperparts with white spots and a faint yellow tinge. White stripes extend down the sides of the face. Both sexes have a red forehead which is brighter in males. Males also have a red throat which is white in females. The common call is a scruffy, nasal neaah.

Did you know? The yellow-bellied sapsucker often uses human-made objects to make their drumming noises. Metal objects, in particular, are used as they create loud reverberations.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

During the breeding season, they occur in deciduous and mixed forests. In winter, they are also found at forest edges, open woodlands, and other semi-open habitats.

Tree sap is the primary food source of sapsuckers, as the name suggests. They drill holes to create sap wells in tree trunks and branches. They also eat fruit as well as insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers numbers have increased in the last few decades.

Where to look for the yellow-bellied sapsucker in Ohio: They are around during the fall as they migrate from their breeding grounds north of Ohio to the south for winter. Look for them around pasturelands, forest clearings, woodland edges, and suburban areas with large trees. A tell-tale sign of their presence is the neat horizontal rows of holes they drill in trees.

The Following Species Have Only Been Observed On Rare Occasions In Ohio

8. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

  • Scientific name – Dryobates borealis
  • Lifespan – 16 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 8.5 in (21.5 cm)
  • Weight – 1.6 oz (47 g)
  • Wingspan – 14.2 in (36 cm)
  • Status – Near threatened (IUCN) / Endangered (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered bird of the dwindling long-leaf pine forests. It is a medium-sized pied black and white bird. Its upperparts are jet-black with white bars. It has a distinctive black cap and nape and large white cheek patches. The name stems from small red lines on either side of its head. This feature is called a “cockade,” however, it is almost unnoticeable.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Historically, their habitat has been old primary forests, particularly the lightning-dependent long-leaf pine forests. Due to excessive logging, most of their natural habitat has been destroyed. They are still found in some mature pine forests and sometimes occur in young forests and stands. Red-cockaded woodpeckers mainly eat insects such as ants, termites, and other invertebrates as well as plant foods including seeds, fruits, and berries. They often forage in mixed-species flocks.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is endemic to the southeastern United States, where they were once common. They have been observed in Ohio, although there have not been many records of them in the state. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are listed as “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and “near-threatened” by the IUCN.

The chances of spotting a red-cockaded woodpecker are slim, but they are most likely to occur in the open understory of mature pine forests. Most nesting sites, however, are within protected areas in the southeastern states.

9. Red-Naped Sapsucker

  • Scientific name – Sphyrapicus nuchalis
  • Lifespan – 4 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 7.9 in (20 cm)
  • Weight – 1.7 oz (49 g)
  • Wingspan – 16.5 in (42 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

The red-naped sapsucker was once believed to be a subspecies of the yellow-bellied sapsucker but was later found to be a separate species. It is a medium-sized woodpecker with a black head, red forehead, white stripes, and a prominent red spot on the nape for which it is named. It has a black back and wings with white bars and a yellow breast and upper belly. Males have a red throat patch. In females, this is white above and red below.

Red-Naped Sapsucker

During the breeding season, they inhabit deciduous, evergreen forests and forest edges, parks, and even gardens. During winter, they occur in a wider range of habitats, including mixed forests. The primary food source of the red-naped sapsucker is tree sap. They also eat insects and fruit.

Red-naped sapsuckers occur in the western parts of North America. They breed in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin region and migrate south of their breeding range for the winter. They are common throughout their range, and populations are stable. However, sightings of this species are rare in Ohio, and they have only been observed a few times in the state.

10. Black-Backed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name – Picoides arcticus
  • Lifespan – 8 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 9.1 in (23 cm)
  • Weight – 2.6 oz (74.5 g)
  • Wingspan – 16 in (41 cm)
  • Status – Least concern

Another rare sighting in Ohio is the Black-backed woodpecker. As the name suggests, it has a black back, head, and wings. They are white below with black bars on the flanks. The male bears a prominent yellow cap. A unique feature of the black-backed woodpecker is its three-toed feet.

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Black-backed woodpeckers inhabit coniferous forests in the north and west of the country. They thrive in recently burned forests and other habitats with abundant dead trees and beetle outbreaks. They are specialist feeders of wood-boring beetles.

They have also only been spotted a few times in the state of Ohio. The best chance of spotting them would be in a recently burned forest with large trees.

11. Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name – Campephilus principalis
  • Lifespan – 15 years (maximum recorded)
  • Size – 19.1 in (48,5 cm)
  • Weight – 18 oz (510 g)
  • Wingspan – 30.7 in (78 cm)
  • Status – Critically endangered

The Ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest species in North America. However, it is widely believed to be extinct.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

It is an attractive crested woodpecker with a glossy black or dark purple plumage. It has prominent white lines extending from the cheeks down the back. The wings are edged white. It is named for its large white bill. Historically, they were found in primary upland forests and dense swamplands, and they thrived in disturbed areas.

Their range was believed to include the Ohio River Valley, and remains were found in the southcentral state of Ohio in the 1900s. The last possible encounter of the ivory-billed woodpecker was captured in footage from Arkansas in 2005. but it was never confirmed. Authorities strongly believe that the species is extinct. They are still, however, listed as critically endangered. Factors that led to the decline of the ivory-billed woodpecker include excessive hunting and the destruction of mature forest habitats by deforestation.


Woodpeckers are interesting birds that many enjoy observing and welcome in backyard feeders. They are fascinating birds known for their drumming of tree trunks and various other objects. Woodpeckers are of great economic importance as they control destructive pest species that cause agricultural damages worth millions of dollars each year. They are also of vital ecological importance as the nests they excavate are used by many other species.

They are, however, are sometimes viewed unfavorably by humans as they may cause damage to buildings and infrastructure by drilling holes. They are also unwelcomed among fruit farmers even though their beneficial pest-control functions may outweigh the damage done by crop-raiding. Most woodpecker species are stable as they are generally adaptable, with many species adapting well to human-altered environments such as woodlots, plantations, farmlands, and even residential areas.

Nonetheless, woodpeckers are dependent on forests and woodlands and are thus heavily impacted by deforestation. They also rely on the presence of dead trees for nesting. In some areas, there is a high level of competition for dead and decaying trees for nesting sites. Some species can also be negatively affected by fire suppression practices and fire impact control measures. The main conservation threat to woodpeckers, however, is habitat loss primarily due to logging and deforestation.

It is clear that woodpeckers are valuable species, both economically and ecologically. They also add a touch of wonder to our lives. To attract woodpeckers to your garden, make sure that your backyard feeders are stocked with plenty of fresh fruit, nuts, and suet, especially during the winter. And you are sure to be visited by some of these delightful birds.

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