Woodpeckers of Wisconsin

Woodpeckers of Wisconsin

Woodpeckers have always been an intriguing group of birds, captivating the hearts of generations. In Wisconsin, these birds can be found inhabiting various habitats ranging from dense forests to suburban backyards. With their distinctive appearance, drumming sounds, and fascinating foraging behaviors, woodpeckers have become a favorite topic among bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

This article offers an insight into the lives of woodpeckers in Wisconsin, covering their natural history, behavior, and challenges. We will go over the nine different species of woodpeckers found in the state. In addition, we will examine the various habitats these birds occupy, their feeding habits, and their ecological significance in their ecosystems.

Exploring the lives of woodpeckers in Wisconsin provides a better understanding and admiration for these magnificent birds and the crucial roles they play in our natural world. Therefore, join us on this journey as we uncover the captivating world of woodpeckers in Wisconsin.

1. Red-Headed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
  • Life span: 8 – 10 years
  • Size: 19 to 25 cm (7.5 to 9.8 in)
  • Weight: 56 to 97 g (2.0 to 3.4 oz)
  • Wingspan: 35 to 43 cm (14 to 17 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is a captivating avian, characterized by its remarkable red head and neck, making it effortlessly distinguishable. With a lustrous black body and wings, paired with white underparts and a white patch situated at the base of its tail, this medium-sized woodpecker is a common sight throughout Wisconsin.

The bird sustains itself on the region’s plentiful insect and invertebrate populations, in addition to fruits and nuts. The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s aerial dexterity is widely celebrated, as it is often seen searching for sustenance while suspended upside down.

A Red-Headed Woodpecker sitting on a tree trunk in the fall

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is a captivating avian species that is native to Wisconsin and is known for its territorial behavior. During the breeding season, which falls in May, the male woodpecker uses its beak to drum on dead trees to attract potential mates.

Upon forming a pair, the birds work together to carve out nest cavities in decaying or dead trees. The female is in charge of incubating the eggs while the male provides food to her and the chicks. The family remains together for some time even after the young have fledged, foraging and roosting as a unit before gradually establishing their own territories.

Red-Headed Woodpeckers are not particularly picky eaters and mainly feed on insects, nuts, and fruits. However, they will opportunistically take advantage of any available food sources, including raiding nests of smaller bird species during tough times.

Despite being categorized as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the Red-Headed Woodpecker population has significantly declined over the last century due to loss of suitable habitats and the removal of dead trees for nesting.

As such, measures such as the creation of artificial nest cavities and bird feeders, preservation of dead trees, and establishment of new nesting sites are critical for supporting and potentially increasing the Red-Headed Woodpecker population.

2. Red-Bellied Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
  • Life span: 10-12 years
  • Size: 22 to 26.cm (9 to 10 in)
  • Weight: 56 to 91 g (2 to 3.2 oz)
  • Wingspan: 35 to 43 cm (14 to 17 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker, a native species to Wisconsin, is a common sight in the region. Its distinguishing characteristics include a red head, neck, and underparts, as well as black wings, back, and tail.

It has a large white patch at the base of its tail and a white bar on its wings, which are mostly visible during flight, making it stand out from other woodpecker species on this list. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s sturdy beak is remarkable, enabling it to search for insects and other food sources on tree trunks, branches, and leaves.

With its exceptional adaptations, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a fascinating species to observe in the wild, making it a favorite among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker looking for a place to dig in the tree trunk

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a species that constructs its nests in cavities, digging holes in dead or decaying trees. After the male excavates the cavity, the female lines it with wood chips before the pair raises their young.

Territorial behavior is also commonly displayed by the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, as it fiercely defends its nest cavity against other woodpeckers, bird species, and predators.

This species is an omnivore that primarily feeds on insects, as well as other invertebrates like spiders and snails. Additionally, it feeds on nuts and fruits, including acorns, berries, and seeds from mature forests where it resides.

The sturdy beak of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker enables it to create holes in tree bark, allowing it to uncover hidden insects and break open seeds and nuts.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a common and widely distributed species in Wisconsin, classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, with a large population and no significant threat or risk of extinction.

The clearing of forests for agriculture has historically benefited this species, creating open woodlands and forest edges that are ideal habitats. Additionally, the species has demonstrated adaptability to human-modified landscapes, such as suburban areas, and is often sighted in parks.

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 fascinating avian species found throughout North America. With its striking black body, white neck and wing stripe, and distinct vocalizations, it is easily identifiable.

Typically, the bird is found in older, more mature forests, where it preys on a variety of insects, including carpenter ants and wood-boring beetles. The Pileated Woodpecker is also well-known for its unique drumming, which can be heard echoing through the woods of Wisconsin.

Despite its large size and striking appearance, the Pileated Woodpecker is a shy and elusive bird that can be difficult to spot.

A Pileated Woodpecker browsing an old tree stump for food

The Pileated Woodpecker is known for being monogamous, mating with a single partner for life. They fiercely defend their territory by emitting bold vocalizations and displays that dissuade other birds from entering their space.

These woodpeckers are exceptional excavators, creating large rectangular cavities in decaying trees to use as nesting, roosting, and food storage sites. Although they prefer to nest in cavities, they require a readily available supply of decaying trees to construct their homes. They are also adaptable and will use artificial nest boxes that meet their needs.

The Pileated Woodpecker’s omnivorous diet consists of both animal and plant matter, but they mainly feed on insects. They use their sturdy beaks and long tongues to excavate for wood-boring beetles, ants, and other insects in decaying trees.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, deforestation caused a decline in the range and population of the Pileated Woodpecker. However, thanks to reforestation efforts and the expansion of suburban and urban forests, the species has made a remarkable recovery. Today, the IUCN classifies the Pileated Woodpecker as “Least Concern.”

Although habitat loss and degradation are still threats, conservation efforts are focused on preserving and restoring their native habitats and providing suitable nesting and foraging sites to ensure the survival of these majestic forest dwellers.

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, a diminutive avian species, is widespread across North America, including the state of Wisconsin. Its unmistakable black and white striped head and small, chisel-shaped beak are distinctive features. Its black back, white underparts, and a conspicuous white wing patch are most visible while in flight.

The Downy Woodpecker is a valuable species in the forest ecosystem, controlling insect populations and aiding in the spread of seeds from trees and plants. Due to its lively movements, many people find this bird species particularly delightful to observe.

A Downy Woodpecker sitting on a log

The Downy Woodpecker is a proficient nest excavator, with both males and females contributing to the process by using their strong beaks to peck away at the wood until a suitable nesting site is created. The nesting cavity is then typically lined with soft materials, such as wood chips.

The Downy Woodpecker feeds primarily on insects, including beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which it locates by pecking at tree bark. It may also consume sap from trees and shrubs by creating holes in the bark and drinking the sap, as well as eating fruits, nuts, and seeds from various plants like elderberry, palmetto, and pine cones.

While habitat loss and degradation have caused a decrease in the Downy Woodpecker population in some areas, it is still classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN.

To ensure the survival of this species and its habitats, conservation efforts are being implemented, including protecting and restoring critical habitats, managing and removing invasive species, and promoting sustainable forestry practices.

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 Wisconsin native with distinct black and white plumage, a lengthy chisel-shaped beak, and an idiosyncratic character. It is present in a variety of habitats, spanning from Alaskan forests to Mexican suburbs, and has been seen visiting bird feeders.

Bird enthusiasts and backyard birders adore this species for its remarkable tree drumming and its proficiency in extracting insects from tree trunks.

The Hairy Woodpecker sitting in a tree

The Hairy Woodpecker is a bird species that creates a nest within a cavity, typically found in trees or wooden structures. Both male and female birds participate in excavation, utilizing their beaks to remove wood until the perfect spot is found.

The nest is typically lined with soft materials like wood chips, as well as human-made items like cigarette filters, pieces of clothing, and foam.

This bird’s diet primarily comprises insects, such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which it locates by pecking at tree bark and other wooden surfaces. It also drinks sap from trees and shrubs and feeds on various fruits, nuts, and seeds.

Despite being prevalent in North America, including Wisconsin, habitat loss and degradation have led to a decline in some Hairy Woodpecker populations. Nonetheless, efforts are being made to conserve and protect this species and its habitats. Currently, the IUCN categorizes the Hairy Woodpecker as “Least Concern.”

6. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes flavifrons
  • 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 woodpecker species found throughout North America, with a medium size and striking black and white plumage. One of the most recognizable features of this bird is its yellow belly, from which it derives its name.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is commonly found in deciduous forests, orchards, and parks across its range. A unique behaviour of this woodpecker is the creation of shallow holes in trees, allowing it to obtain sap and insects that reside beneath the bark.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and its shallow holes.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is a woodpecker species with distinct yellow belly and striking black and white features. They tend to create nests by drilling holes into trees or wooden structures, and the nest is usually lined with soft materials, such as wood chips or grass.

The process of nest-building is typically a collaborative effort between both male and female birds, using their beaks to carve out the ideal site.

Their primary food source is tree sap, which they access by drilling small holes into the bark, as well as insects and fruits, and sometimes small birds. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker typically resides in coniferous trees, where they are attracted to sap and insects.

Although the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is currently classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the species has seen population declines in some areas due to habitat loss and degradation. Conservation efforts aim to protect and preserve their habitats, particularly mature forested areas with a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees.

These measures have been effective in maintaining stable populations in many regions, although some areas with significant deforestation have seen local declines.

7. Northern Flicker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes flavifrons
  • 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 large species of woodpecker found across North America, from Alaska to Mexico. This bird is known for its distinctive appearance, with boldly-patterned underparts, brownish-red back and wings, a black bib, and a red or black moustache, depending on their morphology. In Wisconsin, the yellow-shafted morphology with a black moustache is the most prevalent.

Its long, straight bill enables it to feed on a variety of food sources, such as insects, seeds, and fruits, and makes it an adaptable bird that can be found in different habitats, including forests, parks, and suburban areas.

The Northern Flicker is active and energetic, often drumming, calling, and displaying, which makes it a popular bird among bird watchers.

A yellow-shafted Northern Flicker with its black moustache hanging on a dead log

The Northern Flicker is known for its distinctive nesting behavior, creating cavities in trees or other surfaces. This versatile bird prefers dead or dying trees, but will resort to man-made structures such as poles or posts if necessary.

In addition to their excavation skills, Northern Flickers are also known for drumming their beaks against hard surfaces to create rhythmic sounds for communication and courtship.

Their diet is varied and includes both plants and animals. They forage insects like ants, beetles, caterpillars, and termites on the ground and in trees, but also consume fruits, berries, and nuts from various trees. In winter when insects are scarce, they use their long tongues to extract sap from trees.

The Northern Flicker, classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, is a plentiful species with a population estimated to range between 10 and 20 million individuals and is widely distributed in North America.

Despite certain subspecies being impacted by deforestation and urbanization, they have adapted well to human-modified landscapes and even extended their range into urban areas.

8. American Three-Toed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides dorsalis
  • Life span: Up to 6 years
  • Size: 8-9 inches
  • Weight: 1.5-2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The American three-toed woodpecker is a species found in the boreal forests of North America, spanning from Alaska to the northern continental United States. With a speckled black and white body, they are easily recognized by their three-toed feet, unlike other woodpeckers with four toes.

They have a specialized tongue covered in barbs that helps them extract insects from crevices in trees. This adaptation makes them excellent hunters in their forest habitat.

An American Three-Toed Woodpecker sitting vertically on a tree trunk

The American Three-toed woodpecker is a fascinating bird species found in Wisconsin. They have unique dietary habits and nesting behaviors that set them apart from other woodpeckers. These birds primarily feed on insects, such as wood-boring beetle larvae found under the bark of coniferous trees.

They have a special adaptation in their tongues that allows them to easily extract their prey. Additionally, they also forage for ants and other insects on the ground.

When it comes to nesting, American Three-toed woodpeckers prefer dead or dying trees to make their homes. They excavate cavities in the wood, which serves as a cozy abode for them.

One interesting fact about them is that they only have three toes instead of the usual four, with one toe absent on each foot. This unique adaptation helps them cling to the bark of trees while foraging for food.

It is crucial to address the conservation of the American Three-toed woodpeckers in Wisconsin, as they have been classified as a threatened species in the state. This is mainly due to habitat loss and degradation resulting from various activities such as logging, wildfire suppression, and climate change.

Nevertheless, conservation efforts have been initiated to preserve and restore their habitat, specifically in mature forests that have a combination of coniferous and deciduous trees. These initiatives involve controlled burning to encourage healthy forest growth and selective logging to create a diverse range of forest age classes.

9. Black-Backed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides arcticus
  • Life span: Up to 7 years
  • Size: 8-9.5 inches
  • Weight: 1.5-2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 15-18 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Black-Backed woodpecker is a striking bird with a unique appearance. Found primarily in North America, these woodpeckers have a distinctive black back with white spots and a bold black and white striped face.

Their red crown and yellowish-white underparts add to their striking appearance. A fun fact about these birds is that they are attracted to recently burned areas, where they feed on insects that are attracted to the newly burned wood.

A Black-Backed Woodpecker sitting on a snowy birch tree

The Black-backed Woodpecker’s nesting behavior is unique, as they often nest in recently burned areas with blackened trees, which provides the perfect habitat for them. They excavate their nest cavities in these dead trees and forage for insects in the burned areas.

Their diet mainly consists of wood-boring insects such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars that they find in the bark and wood of dead and dying trees. Black-backed Woodpeckers play a crucial role in forest ecosystem health, as they help to control insect populations and reduce the spread of disease.

Conservation efforts for the Black-backed Woodpecker in Wisconsin have been focused on maintaining healthy and diverse forest habitats. The species has faced declines in population due to habitat loss caused by logging, fire suppression, and development.

However, forest management practices that include prescribed burns and selective logging have helped to create suitable habitats for the Black-backed Woodpecker.

Additionally, the Black-backed Woodpecker is considered a “priority species” in Wisconsin and is a focus of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ conservation efforts. Researchers are also studying the effects of climate change on the species, as warming temperatures could affect their habitat and food sources.

Where to look for Woodpeckers in Wisconsin

If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of Wisconsin’s woodpeckers, there are a few tricks to keep in mind. First off, while these birds may be common in the state, they can be quite elusive.

So, it’s important to be patient and take your time. But fear not, there are plenty of places to find them in Wisconsin’s beautiful parks, forests, and other natural areas.

One of the easiest ways to locate woodpeckers is by listening for their calls and drumming sounds. These are unmistakable and can often be heard reverberating through the trees. It’s a sure sign that woodpeckers are nearby and worth keeping your eyes peeled for.

Another way to find woodpeckers is by looking for signs of their activity. Keep an eye out for holes in trees, strips of bark that have been peeled away, or wood chips scattered on the ground. These are all indicators that a woodpecker has been active in the area, either foraging or excavating a cozy nest.

Wisconsin has a diverse range of woodpecker species, and each area may have its own unique population. Some of the best places to spot woodpeckers include the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area, the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.

Each of these locations is home to different species of woodpeckers, so it’s worth doing a bit of research to find the specific ones you’re interested in seeing.


Wisconsin is a wonderful state that boasts a rich variety of woodpecker species. These avian creatures each have their own unique habits and preferences when it comes to their natural habitats. Interestingly, woodpeckers have been shown to be less impacted by climate-related disturbances when compared to other types of birds.

However, the negative impact of human activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and deforestation have adversely affected some woodpecker populations in Wisconsin.

Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of this problem, and active conservation initiatives are underway to protect and preserve woodpecker habitats.

It is hoped that these efforts will help woodpecker populations to thrive once again. Hiking in the woods and observing woodpeckers is a truly delightful experience, adding to the enjoyment of being in nature.