The 7 Woodpecker Species Found in Iowa! (ID Guide)
What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in Iowa?
Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds to attract, and I look for them every day in our backyard. I love watching them eat suet from my feeders, or if I’m lucky, listening to them in the woods as they drum on trees. 🙂
No matter where you live in Iowa, you are able to see a large number of woodpeckers hanging around. Most people are surprised at the wide variety of species that can be found near them.
To learn more about other birds near you, check out these guides!
In fact, 7 types of woodpeckers live across Iowa!
Below you will learn more about each one AND how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
- *RELATED: Watch the LIVE bird feeder and animal cameras in MY backyard* (You may get lucky and see a woodpecker feeding on my cams RIGHT NOW!)
#1. Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in Iowa! You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards.
These birds have a shorter bill and are relatively small compared to other species. Color-wise, they have white bellies, with a mostly black back that features streaks and spots of white. Male birds have a distinctive red spot on the back of their head, which females lack.
Downy Woodpecker Range Map
Downy Woodpeckers are found in many different habitats in Iowa. Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods that have a water source nearby. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
How do you attract Downy Woodpeckers to your feeders?
Luckily, this woodpecker species is easy to draw to your backyard. The best foods to use are suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (including peanut butter). You may even spot them drinking sugar water from your hummingbird feeders! If you use suet products for attracting woodpeckers, make sure to use a specialized suet bird feeder.
Naturally, these birds eat many types of insects, such as beetle larvae, hidden beneath the barks of trees. Ants and caterpillars are also readily consumed, along with a mix of berries, grains, and acorns.
What sounds do Downy Woodpeckers make?
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
Once you know what to listen for, my guess is that you will start hearing Downy Woodpeckers everywhere you go. Their calls resemble a high-pitched whinnying sound that descends in pitch towards the end.
And if you’re really good, you can try to identify this species by the way they drum on trees, which they do when looking for a mate or establishing a territory. The drumming is so fast it almost sounds like one uninterrupted sound!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like bill. Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Iowa in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. Honestly, they can be found anywhere where there is an abundance of large trees around.
These woodpeckers are easily attracted to bird feeders!
Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food sources, which are insects, aren’t as plentiful, and their diet switches to mainly seeds. I have the best luck using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpeckers can be a bit tricky to identify because they look almost identical to Downy Woodpeckers! These two birds are confusing to many people and present a problem when trying to figure out the correct species.
Here are the best ways to differentiate them:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches long, which is about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches in length, which is slightly bigger than a House Sparrow.
- Looking at the size of their bills in relation to their head is my FAVORITE way to tell these woodpeckers apart. Downys have a tiny bill, which measures a bit less than half the length of their head, while Hairys have a bill that is almost the same size as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, then try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, listen for their two distinct sounds:
The most common call is a short, sharp “peek.” This sound is similar to what a Downy Woodpecker makes, except it’s slightly lower in pitch. They also make a sharp rattling or whinny.
#3. Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome birds and relatively common in Iowa. They are about the size of an American Robin and feature a black bib and spotted belly.
Depending on your location, these woodpeckers appear different. There are two distinct variations you should watch for:
This sub-species is mostly found in the eastern half of the continent. These birds are characterized by red on the back of their head and yellow feathers on their underwing and tail that are visible in flight. Males also have a mustache stripe, which females lack.
This variety is found in the west. To correctly identify, look for a red mustache stripe, which is found on both sexes. Also, when they are in flight, you can clearly see red-orange feathers on their underwing and tail. Red-shafted Northern Flickers also have a mostly gray face with a brown crown, whereas the Yellow-shafted variety has a brown face and gray crown.
And here is the most confusing part:
Where these two varieties of Northern Flickers overlap, they breed with each other! Not surprisingly, these hybrids have a mixture of both features.
To find a Northern Flicker, you should look on the ground!
These birds are unique and don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They spend a lot of their time searching for ants and beetles on the forest floor by digging through the dirt! They hammer away at the soil just like other woodpeckers drill into trees.
Watch a Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) visiting my feeding station!
In the winter, their diet switches to include fruits and berries, which is when it’s possible to see them at bird feeders. They don’t visit often, but you may see them nibbling on suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. To attract Northern Flickers, you may have better luck installing an appropriately sized nestbox or ensuring your backyard has many native plants, which attract insect species.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound!
Northern Flickers emit a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
They also make a one-note contact call (“peah”).
#4. Pileated Woodpecker
There are no other woodpecker species that will make you stop in your tracks quite like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE, and adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (99 cm)! For reference, this is about the size of a crow.
In addition to their large size, these birds are mostly black but with white stripes on their face and neck. Look for a large triangle red crest on the top of their heads. Males have a red stripe on their cheek, where the stripe is black on females.
Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
Pileated Woodpeckers are common in Iowa in large, mature forests with lots of dead and fallen trees. They rely on rotting wood consisting of ants, wood-boring beetles, and termites to find food. Although they will supplement their diet with fruits and nuts.
Press PLAY below to hear a Pileated Woodpecker!
These birds are quite vocal, and you should have no problem hearing one. Listen for a loud “cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk,” which rises and falls in pitch and volume. Just to warn you, Northern Flickers sound incredibly similar!
You can also identify a Pileated Woodpecker by its drumming, which consists of 10 – 30 taps delivered in less than a second. Drumming is used year-round by both sexes to defend or establish territory, attract mates, or to warn of intruders.
Pileated Woodpeckers will visit suet feeders!
Yes, it’s possible to attract these stunning birds to your backyard. They are most often seen dining on suet. The above video was taken from my bird feeding station! 🙂
#5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of my FAVORITE birds to see at my feeders. I think they are absolutely gorgeous with their black and white barred backs.
This woodpecker’s name can be confusing since their bellies don’t actually contain much red coloring, other than an indistinct red wash.
Most of the red on these birds is on their head. In fact, the red coloring is actually the only way to tell males and females apart! Males have a bright red plumage that extends from their beaks to the back of their necks, while females only have red on the back of their necks.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Range Map
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are common to see visiting feeders in Iowa!
I see them almost daily in my backyard. They love eating peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet (which is especially popular during the winter months).
Interestingly, it has been determined that these woodpeckers are one of the most dominant birds on backyard feeders. They rarely back down from any other bird. I can attest to this fact, as I commonly see them fending off numerous starlings at a time by aggressively trying to stab these invasive birds with their beak!
Press PLAY below to hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker!
Another great way to find this woodpecker is to learn its calls! It’s quite common to hear them in forests and wooded suburbs and parks. Listen for a rolling “churr-churr-churr.”
Like most other woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a long tongue that can extend nearly two inches past its beak!
The tongue’s end is sticky and barbed, which helps them grab insects from deep crevices within trees. To fit this long tongue inside their head, it wraps up and around the back of their head!
#6. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a black and white backside and a large white shoulder patch. Look for their distinctive red crown and black and white striped face. As the name suggests, most individuals have a yellowish-white belly.
The only way to tell males and females apart is by the color of their throat. Males have a red throat, while females are white!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Range Map
This migratory woodpecker is found in Iowa in young deciduous forests. They need habitats that feature lots of growing trees, which are perfect for creating productive sap wells. While Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been documented drilling into over 1,000 different tree species, their favorites seem to be maples and birches.
Why are sap wells important to these woodpeckers?
As the name suggests, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers rely heavily on tree sap as a high energy food. These birds drill holes, which are neatly organized into rows (see picture above), into living trees. These holes become sap wells, which slowly leak sap that is eagerly eaten.
Sap wells are even important to hummingbirds! Some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their migration north each spring to correlate with Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The sugary sap ensures that hummingbirds have a food source since not many flowers are blooming yet!
Press PLAY below to hear a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!
The most common sound these birds make is a nasally, cat-like “meow,” which is typically repeated often.
#7. Red-headed Woodpecker
This bird gets my vote for the best-looking woodpecker in Iowa!
Red-headed Woodpeckers are characterized by a large red head and a bill that is larger than most other species. Their back is entirely black, except for white wing patches, which contrasts against the pure white belly. Because of their bold patterning, these birds are sometimes called the “flying checkerboard.” 🙂
Red-headed Woodpecker Range Map
Unfortunately, populations of Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined by over 70% in the past 50 years!
The main culprit is habitat loss due to the destruction of giant beech forests, which produce beechnuts, one of their favorite foods. Simultaneously, almost every American Chestnut tree in the country was destroyed due to a fungal disease called chestnut blight.
And for aesthetic reasons, most people cut down dead trees, which these woodpeckers rely upon for nesting cavities.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are one of the only woodpecker species known to store food. They will hide nuts, seeds, or insects under bark, in fence posts, or even wedged under roof shingles. Incredibly, they will even store LIVE crickets by shoving them in a crevice so tightly they can’t escape!
Press PLAY below to hear a Red-headed Woodpecker!
If you happen to find yourself in the correct habitat of these birds, then make sure to listen for them! Their most common call is a shrill “tchur,” which sounds similar to a Red-bellied Woodpecker, except it’s a bit more higher-pitched and doesn’t roll as much.
Which woodpecker species have you seen before in Iowa?
Leave a comment below!
- RELATED: 8 Most Common Hummingbird Species! (ID Guide)
The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!