12 / OutdoorIllinois November 2011
ivory-billed woodpeckers, once found
in Illinois but now most likely extinct,
gave a much different, softer call—
resembling a child’s tin trumpet.
The 16- to19-inch long pileated
woodpecker is jet black with white
wing linings and a red crest. The male
has a red mustache, where on the
female it is replaced with black. Both
have yellow eyes. The ivory-billed male
has a large, red crest with an ivory-col-ored
bill, two large, long white stripes
that begin underneath the eye and con-tinues
to the lower back, and two large,
white wing patches on each wing. The
female’s crest is entirely black.
Pileated woodpeckers require large
tracts for breeding, at least 100 acres of
mature woodlands. They live year-round
in Illinois, but are absent where
large woodlands cannot be found, such
as agricultural lands in central Illinois,
formerly native prairie.
Pileated woodpecker numbers are
likely rising nationwide. Birds are
appearing in some central and north-eastern
Illinois forests where they were
found during pre-settlement times.
Some folks mistakenly call the red-bellied
woodpecker (Melanerpes car-olinus)
a red-headed woodpecker. It’s
easy to understand why because this
bird does, indeed, have a red head, but
the red is not on the entire head. The
red belly is actually a pinkish smudge
on the stomach of the male that isn’t
that easy to see. Red-bellied wood-peckers
are gregarious and have, in
the 20th century, spread into the
northern third of the state. Range
expansion could be due to global cli-mate
change as well as increased bird
feeding, and perhaps even the decline
of the red-headed woodpecker.
The red-bellied is a handsome bird
that has a ladder back of white and
black, while the red-headed’s back is all
black contrasting with solid white wing
patches. The female red-bellied has red
only on her nape, while the male is red
from the forehead down to the nape and
part of the shoulders. Red-bellies are 9 to
10 inches long and often visit backyard
feeders for sunflowers and suet.
Though considered a year-round
resident in the state, the red-bellied
does make small migratory movements.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are
opportunistic—they not only eat
insects, but also tree sap, bird eggs,
seeds, nuts and fruit.
A bird of open woodlands, the red-headed
woodpecker (M. erythro-cephalus)
sallies from its perch to catch
flying prey, including cicadas. Habitat
loss, as well as competition with the
non-native European starling, is con-tributing
to the species’ decline. In
addition, maple takeover in some
forests has diminished the number of
acorns, which the red-headed relies on
for sustenance in winter. Thickets of
dense, non-native buckthorn and hon-eysuckle
close up the understory,
which makes it difficult or impossible
for this woodpecker to feed.
Males and females look alike, with
their blood-red head contrasting
sharply with a white belly, black back
and large, white wing patches. About 9
inches in length, this woodpecker
makes migratory movements in search
of large mast crops, especially acorns.
The red-headed woodpecker gives a
loud “kweer” call that can identify it
before it is seen. It also utters a
distinctive, long, dry rattle.
The red-headed woodpecker’s diet
also consists of corn, nuts, berries and
even bird eggs.
Another migratory woodpecker,
though found nearly statewide
year-round, is the northern flicker
(Colaptes auratus). About 12 to 13
inches long, the male of this species
has a gray head with red nape, a black
mustache and black bar across its
brownish chest. Its belly and back are
spotted. The female looks similar but
lacks the black mustache.
The flicker, like the red-headed
woodpecker, often retreats farther
south in winter. Once called the
yellow-shafted flicker, this bird has
yellow underwings. In the western
United States, flickers have red shafts.
When in flight, all flickers have a
distinctive, large, white rump.
The flicker’s call sounds like a softer
pileated woodpecker rattle. It often
gives a loud, long “kew” as well as a
soft “wicka-wicka-wicka” sound. Its
name, flicker, comes from this sound.
Northern flickers perform courtship
rituals that involve several birds
dancing, nodding and bowing as they
face one another.
Sphyrapicus varius has a yellow
belly, but the species is more easily
identified by its red head and throat (in
the male), black bib and large, white
wing patches. The female has a white
throat. It’s a common migrant, traveling
through Illinois in February, March and
April to more northerly breeding
grounds, and then back south in late
fall, often as far south as Panama. Some
sapsuckers winter in Illinois, mostly in
the southern third of the state, but they
are becoming increasingly common
The best way to find a sapsucker
during migration is to look for trees
with parallel holes on the bark.
Sapsuckers drill these precise holes,
then return to swallow the sweet liquid
and insects attracted to them. Other
birds, including Cape May warblers and
hummingbirds, also feed at sap wells
drilled by the sapsuckers, even
defending the feeding territory.
Sapsuckers also catch flies and other
insects, and they’ll eat suet at feeders as
well as small fruits. When feeding
young, sapsuckers dip insects into sap,
likely for additional protein.
Sapsuckers frequent wooded yards
and parks during migration—giving the
patient observer a chance to spot one
and enjoy its interesting behavior.
Although mostly quiet compared with
other woodpeckers, the sapsucker has
a distinctive call—a short, rather loud,
“keow” most often heard in Illinois
during migration and winter. The
sound made while drilling sap holes
or for communication is a diagnostic
series of rather slow taps slowing even
more at the end.
Sometimes woodpeckers can be
annoying—tapping on a wooden shin-gle
on a house, for example, and drilling
holes in unwelcome places. To deter
woodpeckers, a large sheet of plastic or
heavy duty garbage bag tacked where
the birds are coming makes it difficult
for the birds to grasp the siding. Hang-ing
streamers about 10 inches apart
might scare away the birds. Plastic owls
and rubber snakes often do not work,
nor do repellents.
Sheryl DeVore is chief editor of “Mead-owlark:
A Journal of Illinois Birds” and
department editor for the American Bird-ing
Association’s publication, “Birding.”
Steven D. Bailey is an ornithologist with
the Illinois Natural History Survey and
associate editor of “Meadowlark.”
Red-bellied woodpeckers can be
identified by the distinctive
black and white ladder-like pattern
on their back.
Illinois’ red-headed woodpecker
population has declined due to
habitat loss and competition with
the non-native European starling.
In Illinois, the northern flicker,
once called the yellow-shafted
flicker, has yellow underwings.
Elsewhere in the United States,
flickers have red underwings.
Parallel holes in the bark of a tree,
creating wells of sap, signal the
presence of a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
November 2011 OutdoorIllinois / 13
(Photo by Adele Hodde.)
(Photo by Adele Hodde.)
(Photo by David Olson.)
(Photo by John Cassady.)
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.