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Woodpeckers in Wisconsin – 8 Common Species [Identification Guide]

Woodpeckers in Wisconsin

The woodlands of Wisconsin are a great place to see woodpeckers. Ten species have been found in the state, and we see eight of them on a regular basis!

Downy Woodpeckers forage with chickadees, and the loud calls of Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers echo in the forest.

We bet you’ve seen a lot of woodpeckers in Wisconsin, but were you able to identify all of them?

This list of common woodpeckers in Wisconsin will help!

 

Key takeaways:

  • In Wisconsin, woodpeckers can be found in most woodland habitats.
  • They are widespread over the whole country, but Downy Woodpeckers are the most common woodpeckers in Wisconsin.
  • On rare occasions, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, but their usual range is usually north or west of Wisconsin.

 

Woodpeckers in Wisconsin

To make this list, we used eBird data to show the eight most common woodpeckers of Wisconsin.

They are listed from most common to least common, and we also included information about key field marks and behavior.

 

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens

Length: 6.75 inches
Wingspan: 12 inches

Downy Woodpeckers are small, cute woodpeckers with black and white plumage. They have bold, black and white markings on their heads, black and white wings, and white underparts.

This woodpecker is slightly bigger than a sparrow, and has white, tufted feathers above its short beak.

Male Downy Woodpeckers have a small red patch on the back part of their head. Females look like males but lack this red patch, and young birds have red on the top of their heads.

This small bird is common in all sorts of wooded habitats. They like to use their small beaks to peck into twigs and often forage with flocks of chickadees and other birds.

This beautiful little woodpecker is also a regular visitor to backyards and can live in urban areas with lots of trees. They also come to bird feeders, especially ones that offer suet and peanuts.

Key identifications:

  • Downy Woodpeckers are smaller than all other woodpeckers in North America. They are nearly as small as a House Sparrow.
  • This species has a short and stubby beak (for a woodpecker).
  • Downy Woodpeckers have small dark markings on their white outer tail feathers.

 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus

Length: 9.25 inches
Wingspan: 16 inches

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are bold birds with a long, dark, chisel-like beak, and backs with zebra-like barring. They also have black and white bars on their long, closed wings, and a bold white rump with some black speckling.

Despite their name, it’s really hard to see the red on this bird’s underparts! Although they do have a bit of red or reddish-orange, it’s hidden on the lower part of their belly. The rest of their underparts and face are a pale gray-buff color, and they have a bit of orange above their beak.

Male Red-bellied Woodpeckers have bright red on their crown and nape. Females only have red on their nape and young birds only show a bit of orange on the back of their head.

We see pairs of this common woodpecker species in all sorts of woodlands. As long as big trees are present, they can even live in urban areas, and often come to feeders.

Key identifications:

  • In most of their range, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are the only woodpecker species that has zebra-like, black and white barring on their back and wings.
  • Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a pale face and red on their nape.
  • This species has plain buff-gray underparts.

 

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryobates villosus

Length: 9.25 inches
Wingspan: 15 inches

Hairy Woodpeckers are medium-sized, black and white woodpeckers with a fairly long and sharp beak. They have a bold black and white pattern on their head, white back, black rump, and black and white wings.

Hairy Woodpeckers also have white underparts and a pale front. Males have a small red patch on the back of their head, females lack this patch, and juveniles have a red patch on top of their head.

If that description sounds like a Downy Woodpecker, it’s true. These two species look almost exactly the same! However, in addition to details mentioned below, they also differ in another main way.

While Downy Woodpeckers like second growth and plants with thin stems, Hairy Woodpeckers only live in places with big, mature trees. We mostly find these woodpeckers in forest but they can also occur in parks and suburban areas that have lots of big trees.

Hairy Woodpeckers can also visit feeders, especially for suet.

Key identifications:

  • Hairy Woodpeckers have noticeably longer beaks than Downy Woodpeckers, and are also larger birds.
  • The Hairy Woodpecker has a big white patch on its back.
  • This species has plain white underparts and clean white outer tail feathers.

 

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus

Length: 16.5 inches
Wingspan: 29 inches

Pileated Woodpeckers are really big woodpeckers. These hefty birds are nearly the same size as an American Crow!

If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is actually extinct, that makes the Pileated Woodpecker the biggest woodpecker in North America.

These unmistakable woodpeckers are mostly black with a thick white line on each side of their neck, and a white throat.

They also have a red crest and a long, grayish beak. Males have a small red moustache, while females have a black line that extends from their beak to their neck.

Pileated Woodpeckers also have a small white patch on the upper part of each wing. It’s easier to see this mark and the white underwings when the big woodpecker takes flight.

This fantastic woodpecker lives in forests and woodlands with lots of big, mature trees. For that reason, we don’t usually see them in urban areas. However, they can visit feeders at houses next to or within forest!

Key identifications:

  • In most places, Pileated Woodpeckers are the only big black and white woodpecker with a red crest.
  • This species has a small white patch near the tip of each upperwing. They also have white wing linings.
  • Pileated Woodpeckers have a lot of white on their face and a completely black back.

 

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker is one of the most common woodpeckers in Ohio

Scientific name: Colaptes auratus

Length: 12.5 inches
Wingspan: 20 inches

Northern Flickers are big, unique, gray and tan woodpeckers with bold white rumps. They have buff underparts with black spotting and a bold black patch on their chest, and fine black barring on their back and wings.

This species has some differences depending on where they live. Birds east of the Rocky Mountains have a small red spot on their nape and a black mustache mark (males). Eastern birds also have bright yellow underwings.

West of the Rockies, Northern Flickers have grayer heads, and males have a red mustache. They also have reddish on their underwings.

Northern Flickers love parks, golf courses, and other semi-open habitats. In such places, we often see them in bounding flight, or perched on the ground as they forage for ants. These noisy birds also make laughing calls and “wicka-wicka” vocalizations.

Key identifications:

  • In most of their range, Northern Flickers are the only woodpecker with gray and brown plumage.
  • This species has a gray crown and fine black barring on its tan-colored back.
  • Northern Flickers also have a black chest patch and black spotting on their underparts.

 

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Length: 9.25 inches
Wingspan: 17 inches

Red-headed Woodpeckers are beautiful, medium-sized woodpeckers with a completely deep red head. Adults of both sexes look alike and have a sharp gray bill, and bright white underparts.

Their upperparts are glossy black with a snow-white rump, and big white patches on their wings. Juvenile Red-headed Woodpeckers have a similar plumage pattern but have a gray-brown head, and some dark markings on their wings and underparts.

This striking bird prefers semi-open habitats with mature oaks, snags, and other big trees. We see them on golf courses, at the edges of rivers and other wetlands, and other places with similar-looking habitat.

In some places, this beautiful bird also occurs in urban areas, especially in the southeastern USA.

Red-headed Woodpeckers like to peck into trees like other woodpeckers, but they also catch insects in flight. With that in mind, we often see them sallying into the air from tall snags next to open areas.

Key identifications:

  • Red-headed Woodpeckers are the only woodpecker species in eastern North America with an entirely red head.
  • This species has a unique wing pattern with big white patches on the base of each wing.
  • The Red-headed Woodpecker has a black tail and an extensive white rump.

 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius

Length: 8.5 inches
Wingspan: 16 inches

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are pretty, medium-sized woodpeckers with white shoulders. They have a black and white face, black chest, and uneven black and white barring on their backs.

This woodpecker species has pale yellow on its underparts, small black markings on its sides, and a red patch on its head.
Males also have a red throat bordered with black, while females have a white throat. Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers look like adults but are more dingy gray-brown, and lack red on their heads.

This migratory species likes to peck rows of small holes in deciduous trees. It drinks the sap that comes out as well as insects attracted to the sap.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed in Wisconsin, but move to southern areas for winter months. On their breeding grounds, we often hear their distinctive tapping that starts with a few fast taps and then slows down.

Key identifications:

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are the only woodpeckers in most of their range with white shoulders.
  • This species has a black chest and uneven barring on its sides.
  • The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has lots of uneven, mottled black and white barring on its back.

 

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Male. Photograph © Glenn Bartley

Scientific name: Picoides arcticus

Length: 9.1 inches
Wingspan: 16 inches

Black-backed Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with jet black upperparts and a broad white stripe on the lower side of their face.

Like most woodpecker species, they have a long, sharp beak, and longish wings. Black-backed Woodpeckers also have pale underparts with uneven dark barring on their flanks.

Both sexes look similar, except that male Black-backed Woodpeckers have a bright yellow patch on the top of their head.

These woodpeckers are true birds of cold, evergreen forests. They frequent boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and some parts of the USA, and also occur in montane forests in parts of the western USA.

In many areas, this woodpecker species prefers semi-open habitats like bogs and also takes advantage of burned forests. In those situations, several Black-backed Woodpeckers can show up to take advantage of beetles that feed on the dead trees.

Since Black-backed Woodpeckers don’t usually migrate, we have to visit their boreal forest home to see them.

Key identifications:

  • In much of their range, Black-backed Woodpeckers are the only woodpecker species with a completely black back.
  • This species can also be recognized by the broad white stripe on the lower side of its face.
  • The Black-backed Woodpecker has uneven dark barring on its flanks.

 

Woodpeckers in Wisconsin: FAQ’s

Are woodpeckers in Wisconsin in the winter?

Yes, there are woodpeckers in Wisconsin in the winter.

What is the most common woodpecker in Wisconsin?

The most common woodpecker in Wisconsin is the Downy Woodpecker. According to eBird, this small woodpecker species is seen more often than any other woodpecker in the state.

What is the rarest woodpecker in Wisconsin?

The rarest woodpecker in Wisconsin is the Black-backed Woodpecker. This uncommon species only lives in the northern forests of the state. The American Three-toed Woodpecker and the Lewis’s Woodpecker have also been occasionally seen in Wisconsin.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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