What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in Iowa?
No matter where you live in Iowa, you can see a variety of woodpeckers. Most people are surprised at the large number of species that can be found near them.
Below you will learn more about each and how to identify them by sight OR sound. Pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
Here are 7 types of woodpeckers that live in Iowa!
- *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
- Dryobates pubescens
- Relatively small and has a small bill compared to other woodpecker 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 Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in Iowa!
You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards and are found in many different habitats. Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods with a nearby water source. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
Downy Woodpecker Range Map
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!
- RELATED: 6 Proven Ways to Attract Woodpeckers
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 how 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!
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Dryobates villosus
- Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like beak.
- Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Iowa in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. But, honestly, they can be found anywhere with an abundance of large trees.
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food source, insects, isn’t as plentiful. I have the best luck attracting them using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers can be 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 THREE best ways to differentiate these two woodpeckers:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches (23-29 cm) long, about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches (15-18 cm) in length, 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 length as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, you can listen for a Hairy Woodpecker:
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, which you can hear by pressing PLAY below.
#3. Northern Flicker
- Colaptes auratus
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome woodpeckers and are relatively common in Iowa. They are about the size of an American Robin and feature a black bib and spotted belly. 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 BLACK mustache stripe, which females lack.
Northern Flicker Range Map
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 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.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound! Listen for a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
#4. Pileated Woodpecker
- Dryocopus pileatus
- 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 cheeks, whereas the stripe is black on females.
No other woodpecker in Iowa makes you stop in your tracks like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE; adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (76 cm). For reference, this is about the size of a crow.
Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
Pileated Woodpeckers are found in Iowa in large, mature forests with many 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. And if you’re lucky, it’s possible to see them in your yard visiting suet feeders!
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!
#5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Melanerpes carolinus
- Males have a bright red plumage that extends from their bills to the back of their necks, while females only have red on the back of their necks.
- The undersides are a mixture of white and tan.
- Their backs are a black and white barred pattern.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of my FAVORITE birds to see at bird feeders. I think they are gorgeous with their black and white barred backs. But their name can be confusing since their bellies don’t actually contain much red coloring other than an indistinct red wash.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Range Map
Interestingly, it has been determined that Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the most dominant birds at 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 bill!
Like most other woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a long tongue that can extend nearly two inches past their bill!
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!
Another great way to find this woodpecker is to learn its calls! It’s common to hear them in forests, wooded suburbs, and parks. Listen for a rolling “churr-churr-churr.” PRESS PLAY BELOW:
#6. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus varius
- Black and white backside and a large white shoulder patch.
- Look for their distinctive red crown and black and white striped face. Males have a red throat, while females are white!
- As the name suggests, most individuals have a yellowish-white belly.
This migratory woodpecker is found in Iowa in young deciduous forests. They need habitats with many growing trees, which are perfect for creating productive sap wells. Their favorites seem to be maples and birches, although Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been documented drilling into over 1,000 different tree species.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Range Map
As the name suggests, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers rely heavily on tree sap as a high-energy food. These birds drill holes into living trees, neatly organized into rows. 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!
The most common sound these birds make is a nasally, cat-like “meow,” which is typically repeated.
#7. Red-headed Woodpecker
- Melanerpes erythrocephalus
- A large red head and a bill larger than most other woodpecker species.
- Their back is entirely black, except for white wing patches, which contrasts against the pure white belly.
This bird gets my vote for the best-looking woodpecker in Iowa! Because of their bold patterning, these birds are sometimes called the “flying checkerboard.” 🙂
Unfortunately, populations of Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined in Iowa 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. In addition, and for aesthetic reasons, most people cut down dead trees, which these woodpeckers rely upon for nesting cavities.
Red-headed Woodpecker Range Map
Red-headed Woodpeckers are one of the only woodpecker species known to store food. They will hide nuts, seeds, or insects under bark, 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!
If you happen to find yourself in the correct habitat, make sure to listen for one! 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 types of woodpeckers have you seen before in Iowa?
Leave a comment below!