The seven woodpeckers of southern Illinois

Woodpeckers are widely known and generally liked. Kids from my generation all knew Woody Woodpecker. Most sport a handsome coat of black, white and red feathers; males usually also have a red crest or cap. They are charismatic and industrious. This last characteristic is an easy way to spot them — pecking at a tree in search of a tasty grub. In southern Illinois you’ll find seven species of woodpeckers year-round, including the crow-sized Pileated Woodpecker, the flashy Red-headed Woodpecker, the common Red-bellied Woodpecker and the diminutive Downy Woodpecker.

The impressive Pileated Woodpecker (16.5” length and 29” wingspan), with its peaked read cap, black and white body, and 2” bill, is quite unmistakable. Found in larger woodlands and forests, they excavate oblong nests in big limbs. Since they don’t often use the same cavity the following year, they provide a nesting cavity for Wood Ducks and other birds. They can make a loud “shriek” heard hundreds of yards away; other calls are similar to Northern Flickers. They also drum loudly on trunks and limbs at some 17 beats per second, both to defend territory and attract mates. Their large bills come in handy when chiseling away deadwood in search of carpenter ants, which account for half their diet. They also eat other insects, nuts and fruits. We are fortunate in southern Illinois to have these woodpeckers as common residents; look for them at Evergreen Park/Carbondale Reservoir, Campus Woods, Giant City State Park, La Rue Swamp and just about everywhere in the Shawnee National Forest.

Pileated Woodpecker Henry Detwiler photo

Almost all woodpeckers are built to make a living in trees. First, they have zygodactyl toes. Zygodactyl? It means having two toes facing forward and two toes facing backward. Along with their stiff tails, this allows woodpeckers to expertly climb up and down, and lean backwards along tree trunks. A long, barbed tongue probes for insects under the bark. They have self-sharpening, chisel-like bills used to search out food and excavate new nest cavities. Researchers have found that they slam these bills against a tree at a speed of 20 feet per second, with a corresponding deceleration of 1,000 times the force of gravity. Considering humans usually suffer concussive trauma at 60g, how do woodpecker brains withstand this massive g-force? A specially structured beak absorbs impact, a unique hyoid bone attaches to the base of the bill and wraps around the skull, performing like a seatbelt to absorb additional shock, and finally, portions of the skull are composed of dense, spongy bone which absorbs impact like a bike helmet.

If you'd like to attract woodpeckers to your yard, hang up a suet feeder. If you’d like to see them in the wild, visit just about any area with trees, like Evergreen Park or Giant City State Park. If you have a woodpecker loudly drumming on a drainpipe or the side of your house, it’s likely doing so the attract a mate — they should cease once they start breeding.

Current regional sightings

April and May are the two best months to view migratory birds. Warblers are a big attraction, as these small but beautifully feathered birds come back north from wintering grounds in Mexico, and Central and South America. Most of these warblers feed in trees, so search for them in parks and forests. Louisiana Waterthrush and Pine Warblers are already being seen regularly. Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, and Pectoral Sandpipers have started moving north via Rend Lake — look for many more shorebirds during the month of April.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Henry Detwiler photo

If you’re looking for ideas about where to go birding in southern Illinois, please consider my book, "Finding Birds in Southern Illinois." It’s available at