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Woodpeckers in Illinois - Adaptations Help Them Survive Midwest Winters

Dec 30, 2020 ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo credit Sheila Brown

Adaptations Help Them Survive Winter

Edward Warden has been watching birds since he was 7 years old, and there’s always one guarantee in winter—he will spot a woodpecker somewhere in Chicago near where he lives. “We have seven local species that can be found in the Chicago area, and all but one of them lives here year-round,” says Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and conservation stewardship coordinator at the Shedd Aquarium. “Where there are some trees, cover and food, you should be able to find a woodpecker.”

These adaptable birds display patterns of black, white and red, adding brightness to a dark winter day. Plus their drumming and ringing calls bring the woods alive in the dreary months. Most common in winter are downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers, which readily visit yard feeders. Hairy woodpeckers, a larger version of the downy, are also common. Less common, but also seen year-round in the region are pileated woodpeckers, which wear a bright, red crest. Northern flickers, which have yellow beneath their wings are somewhat migratory and in fewer numbers in winter, as are red-headed woodpeckers, a species of special concern. The yellow-bellied sapsucker, also a woodpecker, is another migrant in the Chicago area. “The big thing for the common woodpeckers in winter is food,” says Warden. “They are able to eat just about anything—bugs, fruits, nuts, even some plant material.” Other birds like warblers, grosbeaks and orioles that spend summers in the Chicago area have long gone because they rely on insects for most of their food.

Insects are actually still lurking in areas with cold climates in winter, and woodpeckers know how to get to them. The bird’s long, needled beak allows it to probe into deep crevices for beetles and insects overwintering as larvae or eggs. Woodpeckers are also adept at pecking into galls on goldenrods and other plants to get at overwintering insect eggs. They also target nuts in the wild that are infested with bugs. “You’ve got this nut and all these little bugs in there. It’s a woodpecker sandwich,” Warden says.

“Packed inside that beak is a really long tongue,” Warden notes. “It’s pointed and sharp and often barbed to allow the birds to dig around and pull things out of a cavity.” A woodpecker can wrap that long tongue around inside of its skull, which creates a cushion effect for the brain when the bird is pounding on hard objects. “Additionally, there’s a section of the bone where the beak meets the skull. It’s very spongy, and it allows for shock absorption,” Warden explains.

Woodpeckers have specially designed feet and tails that help them maneuver on the side of trees. “Think of a robin with its four toes, three in the front and one behind,” Warden says. “Woodpeckers have two toes in front and two toes in back, and can even rotate one of those toes. That allows them to better grasp tree bark and other places in a way other birds can’t.” Stiff tail feathers also help the woodpeckers hoist themselves up trees.

Red-headed woodpecker Photo credit Steven D. Bailey

Another way for woodpeckers to survive winter is by caching food. “Different woodpeckers are known to stash nuts, seeds and insects into holes in tree bark to have easy access for later,” writes Kim Compton, education and visitor center services coordinator for the McHenry County Conservation District, in the winter edition of Landscapes, the district magazine.

In spring and summer, woodpeckers nest in cavities, hammering out fresh holes each year to raise their young. But they are also seeking holes for shelter in winter, which they may excavate or find one created by another bird. They’ll also use bird boxes and other manmade items to protect them from cold and wind.

Woodpeckers drum on trees not only to create holes, but also for communication, including warding off competitors and attracting mates. “There was a flicker once that loved this trash can at Lincoln Park Zoo,” Warden recalls. “It had a metal curved top. He would sit on this thing and bang away. It sounded like a fire drill alarm.” Woodpeckers also give alarm calls and trills that help identify them and alert us to their presence.

Pileated woodpecker Photo credit William Morris

Woodpeckers benefit the environment in several ways. The holes they excavate provide homes for other wildlife, including flying squirrels and screech-owls. They also eat destructive insects we might not notice in our trees, Warden says. Red-bellied woodpeckers, in fact, eat emerald ash borers that have been infesting native trees. The red-bellied woodpecker has increased its range northward in the past several decades. “They’re one of the most adaptable birds out there when it comes to diet, range and habitat type,” Warden says.

Northern flicker Photo credit Steven D. Bailey

 The northern flicker, which is much less common in the region in winter, helps keep ants at bay in spring and summer. “Their niche is on the ground,” Warden says. “You see them hanging out with robins. They’re ant-eaters.” A flicker’s bill is more curved than the straight bill of other woodpecker species, and that helps them get underground food such as grubs, beetles and ants.

Downy woodpecker Photo credit Courtney Celley/USFWS

The largest woodpecker in the region is the pileated. “You won’t see it in the city much, but if you go to local forest preserves or natural areas, you might find one,” Warden says. Several years ago, he helped organize a birding competition at 10 Cook County forest preserves, and all seven woodpecker species, including the pileated, were found. “In the past, pileated woodpeckers used to be pretty rare. You’d only see them in the biggest, densest forest preserve properties. But now they’re expanding,” Warden says. Woodland restoration may be a factor, he says, and it’s especially important for red-headed woodpeckers, a species of special concern in the Chicago region. Threatened in Canada, this bird needs open oak woodlands for breeding, as well as finding acorns to eat. “Those spaces are hard to come by in our area,” Warden says. As oak restoration occurs in the Chicago region, these woodpeckers are starting to increase in numbers.


Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environmental stories for national and regional publications. For a pictorial guide to woodpeckers in Illinois, visit