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November 6, 2016
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

I could write a column on any one of Iowa's woodpecker species but decided this week to do one on all at once.

Iowa is home, at least part time, to no less than seven species of woodpeckers. Several of them are year-round residents while others may be seen only during migration or migrate south in winter. All of our woodpeckers have one thing in common, they peck wood in order to feed, excavate a nesting cavity, or both. They all climb trees in a similar fashion, as well. Some are nearly identical in life style and appearance, but differences among these similar appearing birds are interesting.

Probably the most common among our year-round resident woodpeckers is the little black and white downy. They frequent feeders in both urban and rural settings where ever there are enough big trees around to support them. Their main native food, like all woodpeckers, is insects, both adults and their larvae. They readily feed on sunflower seeds and suet at feeders and it's not unusual to see them pecking on corn in more rural settings. I have even seen them sip nectar from hummingbird feeders.

The larger hairy woodpecker is identical to the downy in almost every way. They have the same black and white barred pattern on their back, white breasts, and males sport a nice little red cap on the back of their head. Also year-round residents, they are less common in urban settings, preferring to stay near larger tracts of woodland.

The red-headed woodpecker was once very common in rural settings. When I came to Grundy County in 1980, it was what I considered the most plentiful of woodpeckers at Wolf Creek Park near Beaman. Sadly, their numbers have suffered large declines. Their striking red head and bold black backs with large white wing patches were unmistakable. Males and females are identical. Red heads can occasionally be seen in winter, but most of them migrate farther south. Red heads have the unusual habit among wood peckers of occasionally flying out to catch insects on the wing.

The red-bellied woodpecker has a bright red cap over the top of its head and only has a slight blush of red on its belly between its legs. It can't be confused with the red-headed woodpecker because of its barred black and white back and mostly light gray front. Also a year-round resident, it will come to feeders for sunflower seeds and suet if near larger woodlands where they prefer to live.

King of all the woodpeckers is the crow-sized pileated. They are uncommon but permanent residents of larger woodlands to our north and east. This summer, I received a text from my daughter that included a picture of this "giant woodpecker". She and her husband live in Cedar Falls near the Hartman Reserve Area. A great place for these largest of our Iowa woodpeckers. They are occasionally seen around central Iowa. They are unique in having a bright red crest on their head, bold white stripes on their unusually long neck, and a nearly solid black back. Their size and power allow them to excavate much large holes than other woodpeckers and they can completely tear apart old rotten stumps to get at the juicy insect larvae and carpenter ants that live in them. Wood ducks often nest in abandoned pileated holes.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is typically seen in Iowa only as it passes through during spring and fall migrations. They might be mistaken for a hairy woodpecker which has similar barring on the back, but closer inspection will show more red on the front of their head and a blush of yellow on their bellies. Their unique feeding technique involves drilling straight lines of shallow holes into thin tree bark which then fill with sap. I find these lines on trees in many of our parks and wildlife areas. They return later and lap up the sap and insects that it attracts. The straight lined patterns of holes can be seen on some species of trees year-round and tell of the passing presence of this interesting bird.

The last woodpecker I'll mention is the northern flicker. Unlike all the others, it is not primarily black and white. Rather, is appears light brown and gray with unique yellow shafts on its flight feathers, a white rump that's prominent in flight, a spotted breast, and yellow underwings. The name for this bird used to be yellow-shafted flicker for that reason. They excavate nest holes in dead trees like other woodpeckers, but feed on the ground, primarily on ants that they sweep up with their brush tipped tongues. Flickers nest here, but usually migrate farther south.

And lastly, I'll mention a unique trait of many woodpeckers is that they don't sing like other song birds. They have voices that can be quite loud, but making their territorial claims known is often done by drumming on a dead branch making a sound that carries a remarkably long distance.



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