For birders and nature lovers who love to get out in the woods to find wildlife, late January and early February can be slim pickings.
But if you know how to look for woodpeckers during the winter months and early spring, the woods can provide plenty of interest and entertainment.
In the Chicago area birders can effectively expect to find 7 species of woodpeckers. The three most common are downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers. These three species are fairly numerous all winter.
The next two species, while common during summer months, can still be found in winter around northern Illinois depending on weather and food supplies. Flickers are winter residents throughout the area and red-headed woodpeckers can be found in select areas as well. Both have been known to come to suet or bird feeders.
The last two and most uncommon species are yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker. Sapsuckers are generally only found in northern Illinois during early spring migration, usually starting in late March. Pileated inhabit large tracts of woods in select pockets of the Chicago region.
When the going gets slow in winter birding, it usually pays to “hit the woods” where winter wind might not be so strong, and where woodpeckers can found. Some favorite woodpecker haunts in the western suburbs naturally include parks and forest preserves. In Kane County, for example, Elburn Forest Preserve (Route 38 west of Route 47) has downy, hairy, red-bellied, flicker, and red-headed woodpeckers. These four can also be found at Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve (Hughes Road 2 miles east of Route 47). Norris Woods in St. Charles behind Bethlehem Lutheran Church is also know for many “four-woodpecker” days.
Pratt’s Wayne Woods in western Dupage County is another woodpecker haven. It’s density of deadwood around former quarry ponds makes good feeding grounds for hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers. Red-headeds can be found there too. Wherever you go in search of woodpeckers, they tend to like dense or open-margin woods near streams or runoffs because trees there often rot out and die, leaving “woodpecker” hotels where they can feed and breed. Flickers are ground feeders and will eat by sticking their long tongues down anthills. But you will often see flickers in trees as well. All woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues used to stick in holes to snag and pull out food. Their beaks make the holes, but the tongues do the real work of dining.
Pileateds woodpeckers are rather uncommon in Illinois. Once they were probably much more plentiful. Formerly Illinois was covered with larger woodland tracks that served as habitat for these crow-sized woodpeckers. Now remnant or recovered populations of pileated woodpeckers can be found principally in the Palos forest preserves southwest of Chicago. There are reports of populations west of Chicago in the Rock River areas as well. Pileateds prefer expansive tracts of woodland with plenty of dead trees in which to seek food by hammering out big holes.
The more common downy woodpeckers, while not as dramatic or large as pileateds, often make an otherwise slow birding trip an interesting one. Downies are active, vocal and colorful. The male and female birds look exactly alike with exception of the male’s red crown patch. But when two males start competing for territory the action gets really interesting. Both birds will spiral around a tree branch ‘chucking’ and peeping at each other. Their antics take on the characteristic of an orchestrated dance. Sometimes to the performances last for several minutes.
Hairy woodpeckers tend to be more solitary than downies, but you can often find the two species in close vicinity of each other. That’s a good time to compare and learn the difference between the two species.
Hairy woodpeckers closely resemble downies but are larger, with a longer beak almost 1” in length. They are also marked by a large tuft of protruding feathers above the beak. The call of the hairy is a more emphatic, drawn-out and rattling call than that of the downy. Hairy woodpeckers do not tend to be as vocal. So to separate downy from hairy you should look for size (the downy is sparrow-size, the hairy more in the range of a robin) beak size (downies have stubby beaks while hairies have the longer beak) and the outer tail feathers on a hairy woodpecker is entirely white while the downy exhibits small black markings on both sides of the tail. Both species have a solid white stripe down the center of the back, are overall black and white and feature white “dots” on the wings.
The next most common species of winter woodpecker in Illinois is the red-bellied woodpecker. You can find this bird in almost every robust chunk of woods. Red-bellieds become highly animated and vocal in winter. Their “churrrhhhhh” call grabs your attention as will their mobile habits swooping from tree to tree. They also often hang close to a nest hole or favored branch for long periods. They are quite easy to observe and are thus a favored species with which to introduce new birders to the diversity of species here in Illinois. Red-bellied woodpeckers have black and white horizontal striping on the back and dense b/w markings on the wings and tail as well. They can be mistaken for flickers in flight because of their comparable size and facial pattern. Red-bellieds of both sexes sport bright red crests that reach from forehead to nape (back of the neck). The male bird’s red crest extends all the way to the beak while the female’s stops at the forehead. Both sexes have an orangish “moustache” at the base of the bill. The fabled “red belly” is actually a salmon patch of feathers between the legs. You’ don’t often see this coloration unless the bird is highly active.
The Northern or Common Flicker is a summertime species known to overwinter if climate allows. They will visit suet and bird feeders where their large size (almost a foot long) and striking pattern grab your attention. Flickers have long, slightly recurved beaks. The male has a black “moustache” or marking on its face while the female does not. Flickers have spotted breasts, brown backs and a bright white rump seen in flight as they bob away in soaring loops like an overgrown goldfinch. Flickers make several distinctive vocalizations, calling their own name, “Flicka flick ah flick ah flick!’ as well as a catlike “peaaaahlll”.
And speaking of catlike, snother species of woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, emits a very catlike “meeewwwwhh!”, crisp and cryptic, since this bird is rather shy and spooks easily when birders attempt a closer view. They often hitch around the back of a tree rather than flying away first. When they do, watch for the white wing patches in flight, which is often low and looping, ending with a quick swoop up onto a tree trunk.
Sapsuckers generally migrate through Illinois on route to breeding territories further north. You know the seasons are truly changing when sapsuckers arrive in spring and pass through in fall. They are so named for their propensity for hammer patterns in trees that produce sap strings. Their distinctive tapping pattern is considered a field mark in identifying the birds. The striking coloration of the species makes them easy to identify. Male birds have a red throat and forehead, while females sport a red forehead and white throat. Both male and female have prominent white bars on their upper wing coverts extending from “shoulder” to middle of the wing. Young birds are darkish grey-brown but still show the white wing patch distinctive to the species.
Our last species, the red-headed woodpecker, is unmistakable in its adult plumage. As the name suggests, their red heads are quite distinctive. But beware: in certain lights the red head can appear black. But you still have the clear white breast and solid black back with large white wing bars to use in identifying this species.
Learning your woodpeckers is a staple of birdwatching. Travel out of the Chicago region and you can find more species such as the Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers of the north woods. These species very seldom make appearances down south. Nor to many other woodpecker species wind up in the Chicago area as “vagrants,” for most western species are dependent on certain types of food sources and hug close to their geographical and topographical territories. It’s a treat however to travel out west and find Acorn and Lewis woodpeckers to compare to our own species back home. That’s what makes birding such a fulfilling hobby. Always something to add to the list. Woodpeckers taxonomically fall between kingfishers and flycatchers, both types of birds with pronounced, utilitarian beaks.
The evolutionary process is so creatively inventive it is easy to forget that the adaptations of woodpeckers to hammer holes in trees is an adaptation crucial to their survival. The process of getting from a probing method of getting grubs out of wood to full on hammering likely took millennia. But the perfection of a bird with a hollow skull to absorb shock and a long tongue to flick out prey is what makes woodpeckers unique. Let’s see a kingfisher try that!
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