All about the woodpeckers of Will County

Woodpeckers are unique in the bird world, and we're lucky enough to have seven species living all around us

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


As a group, woodpeckers are unique for many reasons. First off, there’s their repetitive tapping and drumming behavior, which can be either awe-inspiring or aggravating depending on your perspective. 

All that hammering away on trees requires some unique adaptations to protect them from hurting themselves, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart from other birds. Many woodpeckers have long tongues, some able to extend inches beyond their mouths. And their feet are different too, able to grip onto trees with what’s called a zygodactyl toe.


Many of their unique features make them well-suited for their life in the trees. Most are forest dwellers, although it’s not unusual to catch a glimpse of a woodpecker in more suburban areas, including backyards and parks. 

Northern Illinois is home to seven species of woodpeckers. Here’s a closer look at each. 

Downy woodpecker

A downy woodpecker on tree bark.

A downy woodpecker. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Downy woodpeckers are the most diminutive of our woodpeckers, smaller than even a robin. They have a classic woodpecker build — blocky head, wide shoulders and a straight back with a sharp-looking bill — but they are smaller in stature than our other woodpeckers, according to Cornell Lab.

Downy woodpeckers are very similar in appearance to hairy woodpeckers, just much smaller in size. They are between 5 inches and 7 inches long, Cornell Lab reports. Downies have black and white plumage. They have white bellies, and their upperparts are black and white, with a bold white stripe on the back and a black and white checked appearance on their  wings. Their heads have bold black and white stripes, and males have a red patch on the head that females lack.

Downy woodpeckers are the woodpecker most likely to visit backyard bird feeders, and they are often seen mixed in with flocks of nuthatches and chickadees, according to Cornell Lab. Their feeder preference is suet, but they will also eat sunflower seeds, peanuts and millet. Away from feeders, they mainly eat insects as well as plant material like berries, grains and even acorns. 

These woodpeckers are common across much of the United States, although they are not found in the southwest. They live in a variety of habitats, including wilderness areas like forests and river groves, as well as suburban habitats like yards and parks, according to the National Audubon Society.


They typically nest in dead trees or dead tree limbs, excavating a cavity in a limb or branch that extends away from the trunk, Cornell Lab reports. They often choose deciduous trees, and they are partial to trees that have fungal infections because it softens the wood for easier excavation.

Hairy woodpecker

A hairy woodpecker on tree bark.

A hairy woodpecker. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Hairy woodpeckers look like larger versions of downy woodpeckers, so much so that the two birds are often confused for one another. Like downies, hairy woodpeckers have black and white plumage. Their bellies are white, their wings are black-and-white checked and their heads are black with two white stripes, according to Cornell Lab. You can tell the difference between males and females by looking for a red patch on the back of their heads that only males have.

Hairy woodpeckers are considerably larger than downies, about 7 inches to 10 inches long compared to only 5 inches to 7 inches long for downies. Another difference between them is their bills, with hairy woodpeckers having considerably longer bills. 

They’re frequent visitors to bird feeders, particularly in winter when their usual food sources are not as plentiful. You can attract them to your yard by putting out suet, peanuts or sunflower seeds, Cornell Lab advises. In warmer months, they predominantly eat insects, mostly larvae of bugs they find under tree bark.


Hairy woodpeckers live across much of the United States and Canada as well as parts of Mexico. They prefer medium- or large-sized trees in mature woodlands, including both deciduous and coniferous forests. They’re also often seen in wooded areas, parks and cemeteries in suburban locations.

They build their nests by excavating cavities, usually in dead trees or trees with heart rot, a fungal disease that causes wood decay. They often make their nest in a part of the tree that isn’t vertical, with the hole on the underside, in an attempt to keep yellow-bellied sapsuckers and flying squirrels out of their nests, Cornell Lab reports.

Northern flicker

A northern flicker on tree bark.

A northern flicker. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Northern flickers spend more time on the ground than most woodpeckers because they eat a lot of beetles and ants, digging them up with their bills, Cornell Lab reports. In winter, their diet switches to more seeds and fruit. They aren’t frequent feeder visitors, but they may visit your yard if you have a bird bath. You may also be able to attract them to your yard if you put up a nesting box well ahead of breeding season, which begins in spring.

These woodpeckers are fairly large, about 12 inches to 14 inches long. They are grayish-brown birds and, from above, their wings and backs have a barred pattern. Their breasts have a polka-dot like appearance, with a black bib or collar above, and the underside of their wings is yellow.

Both males and females have a patch of bright red on the back of their heads, Wildlife Illinois reports. You can distinguish between males and females by the presence of a black “mustache” or “whisker” below their eyes that only males have. Like most woodpeckers, they have long, sharp bills, but theirs have a slight downward bend.

Northern flickers live in our area year-round, but elsewhere they are migratory. They can be found in all parts of the Unites States. Flickers prefer wooded areas, but they’re also often seen in more open spaces with scattered trees and along the edges of forests and woodlands. They’re sometimes seen in more suburban areas as well, Cornell Lab reports.

Although northern flickers spend a lot of time on the ground searching for food, they do nest in trees, typically in holes they find in dead or diseased trees, according to Cornell Lab. They don’t always make their own nests. Sometimes they will move into a cavity that another bird made in a previous year.

Pileated woodpecker

A pileated woodpecker on tree bark.

A pileated woodpecker. (Photo courtesy of Demond McDonald)

The pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America except for the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is thought to be extinct, according to the National Audubon Society. Pileateds are 15 inches to 19 inches long, mostly black and white in appearance except for a bright red head crest.

Facial coloring is slightly different between male and female pileated woodpeckers. Both have the telltale red crests, but a male’s crest extends to his bill. A female’s red crest stops just above the eyes, leaving female pileated woodpeckers with a black forehead. Males also have a thin red “mustache” or “whisker” directly behind the bill, while females do not.

Pileated woodpeckers aren’t frequent feeder visitors, but they are known to eat from suet feeders on occasion. Their primary food source is carpenter ants, but they also eat other ants, flies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, cockroaches, and termite and woodboring beetle larvae, as well as fruit and nuts, according to Cornell Lab.


Pileated woodpeckers live across most of the eastern Unites States as well as in the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada. They live mainly in mature forests, although they are also sometimes found in younger woodlands that have a lot of dead trees or a good amount of decaying and downed wood. Additionally, they may be  found in suburban areas with good woodlands. 

Pileateds usually nest in dead trees or limbs in a mature wooded area. They excavate holes for their nests, although their holes are different from most other woodpeckers in that they are large and deep and either oblong or rectangular in shape rather than circular, Cornell Lab reports. If you have mature trees near your home, you may be able to attract pileated woodpeckers by setting up a breeding box, as long as you place the box well before their breeding season begins in early spring.

Red-bellied woodpecker

A red-bellied woodpecker climbing up a tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The red-bellied woodpecker is sometimes confused with the similarly named red-headed woodpecker, and the confusion is understandable because red-bellied woodpeckers also have red heads. Although the two woodpeckers look very different and can easily be distinguished from one another, the naming convention is a little tricky.

In addition to their red heads, which are not as deep a shade of red as red-headed woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers have black-and-white striped or barred backs and bellies that are white or cream and may have some reddish colored patches, according to Cornell Lab. They are medium-sized woodpeckers, typically about  9½ inches long. Males and females look similar, except males have red capes and napes, while females are only red on the napes of their necks.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are more common than red-headed woodpeckers, and are a frequent site at bird feeders, particularly near wooded areas. They prefer peanuts and suet, although they are also known to eat sunflower seeds and may even sip from hummingbird feeders, Cornell Lab reports. Away from feeders, they mostly eat insects, spiders and arthropods, but they also eat plant material like acorns, seeds and nuts.


These woodpeckers live only in the eastern United States. They usually live in forests and wooded areas, most commonly deciduous forests, according to the National Audubon Society. They also live in wooded areas in orchards and lining fields and in suburban areas. They are most common in forested areas near rivers and in swamps.

Red-bellied woodpeckers usually nest in dead trees. They make a new cavity each year, but they will often make a new nesting hole just beneath their nest from the previous year, Cornell Lab reports.

Red-headed woodpecker

A red-headed woodpecker on tree bark.

A red-headed woodpecker. (Photo courtesy of Bob Bryerton)

Red-headed woodpeckers have a very striking pattern that has given rise to nicknames such as the flying checkerboard, jelly coat, flag bird and patriotic bird. They are a medium-sized woodpecker, about 8½ to 9½ inches long. These birds have bold all-red heads, and their bellies are all white, according to Wildlife Illinois. Their backs and wings are black with large white patches, giving them a checkerboard appearance. Males and females are similar in appearance and not easy to distinguish from one another. 

These woodpeckers don’t frequent bird feeders as much as some other woodpecker species. You may occasionally spot a red-headed woodpecker at a feeder in winter,  particularly at suet feeders, according to Cornell Lab.

Red-headed woodpeckers have a varied diet among woodpeckers, eating insects, small mammals, birds, bird eggs, nuts, seeds and fruit, Cornell Lab reports. However, their diet mainly consists of insects, especially cicadas, flies, beetles, honeybees, grasshoppers and midges. They are very good at catching flies, which they grab out of the air after spotting them while perched above. These birds will sometimes store food for later, hiding it in tree crevices or under house shingles.

These woodpeckers live mainly in the eastern United states and some southeastern areas of Canada. Dead trees are an important habitat feature for red-headed woodpeckers because it’s where they breed and nest. In Illinois, they usually live in deciduous forests populated with beech and oak trees, but they tend to be found in pine and pine-oak forests in the southern part of their range, according to Cornell Lab.

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes nest in naturally formed cavities, but most often they excavate their own in a dead tree or dead limb. They will also excavate utility poles and sometimes buildings when making a nest. They prefer smooth wooden surfaces free of bark, possibly because it may prevent snakes from entering their nests, Cornell Lab reports.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

A yellow-bellied woodpecker on tree bark.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are migratory, and they are the only woodpecker that lives in northern Illinois that does not have at least some part of its population present all year, Wildlife Illinois reports. They typically arrive in northern Illinois in April and May, on their way to their breeding grounds further north, and then pass through again in September and October on their way to their southern winter grounds.

These sapsuckers aren’t regular visitors to backyard feeders, although you may have some luck attracting them if you put out suet. One reason they don’t visit bird feeders that often is because, true to their name, sapsuckers suck sap from trees. Sap is actually one of their main food sources, although they also eat insects and fruit, Cornell Lab reports.

To get at the sap in the trees, they drill wells into the inner part of the trunks. Their holes are well organized, with several wells drilled in neat horizontal rows, according to Cornell Lab.  Once the holes are drilled, they will return periodically to lick the sap and also eat plant tissue called cambium. Their preferred trees are those with high sugar concentrations in the sap, including hickory, red maple, sugar maple, paper birch and yellow birch trees.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers, about 8 inches to 9 inches long. Both males and females have yellow bellies, red crest patches and white wing patches that look like a long white stripe on their folded wings, Wildlife Illinois reports. Males have a red throat patch, while females have a white throat patch. 

Their preferred habitat is young deciduous forests, although they will also visit coniferous forests and older hardwood forests, Cornell Lab reports. Because they drink the sap from trees, they’ll often be spotted sitting on tree trunks for long spells while eating.

Sapsuckers often choose to nest in the same trees they drill into for sap. Like some other woodpecker species, they look for diseased trees with fungal infections because it makes excavating a cavity easier, according to Cornell Lab. They will reuse their nests over and over, sometimes for as long as seven years.

(Lead image via Shutterstock)

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