The bird of all seasons

No matter what the weather is like, woodpeckers are active and are a special treat for bird-watchers

|  Story by Cindy Cain |


While many birds head south for the winter, there are representatives of one avian species that stick around all year long providing a special treat for bird-watchers who brave the colder temperatures.

“Even in the winter on really cold days, woodpeckers always show up on our birding lists,” said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. “So no matter what the weather is like, they seem to be active. And because they are active in winter when the leaves are off the trees, they are often easiest to spot then.”

Illinois is home to seven of the 16 types of woodpeckers found in North America:

  • Downy
  • Hairy
  • Red-bellied
  • Red-headed
  • Pileated
  • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers
  • Northern flickers

Bryerton said several woodpecker species are winter residents at Plum Creek Nature Center, located in Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

A red-bellied woodpecker on a branch.

Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common types found at the nature center, which features a bird feeding area visible from inside the building.

Red-bellied woodpecker (Photo by Chad Merda)

A red-headed woodpecker on tree bark.

Red-headed woodpeckers and northern flickers are migratory, but some choose to stay in the winter rather than travel, and they, too, can be spotted at the nature center along with some hairy woodpeckers.

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

A pileated woodpecker on tree bark.

Pileated woodpeckers, which are the largest woodpeckers found in Illinois at 16-19 inches long, also are in the area during winter, Bryerton said. They are known to frequent Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, but they aren’t spotted as often at the nature center.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

“Hickory Creek Preserve and Messenger Woods also have pileated woodpeckers along with all of the other species,” he added. “So they are common across almost all of our preserves.”

There is always something special about spotting a woodpecker tapping away on a tree trunk, Bryerton said.

“I think people enjoy seeing them because the knocking sound they make is unique to these birds, and people get a kick out of hearing the woodpecker drumming. It is an easy sound to identify.”

And they’re a good bird for bird-watchers to add to their lists because they’re easy to spot, he said.

They’re also easy to attract to bird feeders.


“Hang a feeder with suet or one with black sunflower seed you will surely get at least one type of woodpecker to visit, unless you live in a very open area with hardly any trees at all,” Bryerton said. “Even in suburban neighborhoods, downy and red-headed woodpeckers are common visitors to bird feeders and it’s fun to see these black-and-white birds with patches of red show up for a meal.”

Woodpeckers also are a good bird-watching species because they don’t always flit away at the sight of human observers.

“Woodpeckers can be pretty focused on hunting and digging in trees and are not always so concerned about people getting close, so we can get close-up views and watch their behavior as they search the trees for insects,” Bryerton said. “The close-up views of woodpeckers tapping away for bugs provide a reward for getting outside and looking around for wildlife. You get to see this interesting bird that you didn’t know was here as it goes about its day and gives you a cool connection to nature.”

To find woodpeckers in a preserve, look for birds that land on the side of trees as opposed to the branches, Bryerton explained.

“Woodpeckers are pretty vocal, too, and make many kinds of calls. Learning a couple of the more common ones can help you hone in on them as you walk in the woods.”

A northern flick on tree bark.

Northern flicker (Photo courtesy of Debi Barnette Shapiro)

Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center and preserve, said red-headed woodpeckers are somewhat rare in the northern/northwestern section of the county because it’s a more urban area. However, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers as well as northern flickers are common.

“Hairy woodpeckers are present year-round, but are not as abundant as downies,” Gutmann added. “And yellow-bellied sapsuckers and pileated woodpeckers can be found in this part of the county if you’re in the right place at the right time.”

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don’t hang around all year, but Bryerton said he’s already seen some this fall.

“While they are not here year-round like the others, they come through our area regularly and can be found in almost any preserve with trees,” he said.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker on tree bark.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

Even though woodpeckers are fun to watch and a treat for birders, they can sometimes cause property damage or even tree damage. But before you take action, keep in mind that woodpeckers are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and by the Illinois Wildlife Code.

“Killing a woodpecker without a permit can result in fines and jail time,” the University of Illinois Extension warns. For more information on woodpeckers and how to prevent problems, visit the Extension’s “Living with Wildlife in Illinois” website page for woodpeckers.


(Red-bellied woodpecker via Shutterstock)


Back to Top