Situated pretty much right in the middle of the United States, Missouri is a surprisingly bird-rich state. It features a variety of habitats, including grasslands, tallgrass prairies, wetlands, and several types of forests, creating perfect homes for over 400 North American bird species, with northern, southern, eastern, and western species all converging here. It’s also along the heavily trafficked Mississippi Flyway, meaning countless birds migrate through the region in fall and spring.
If you’re out to find woodpeckers, though, you’ll need to seek out the state’s mature forests and other woodland areas as these specialized birds require both living and dead trees to thrive. The Ozark Mountains, Schell-Osage Conservation Area, Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, and Roaring River State Park are all great places to start. I have not yet had the pleasure of birding in Missouri, but it’s been on my list for years. When I do go, I’ll likely hit up these places first.
Bottom Line Up Front
There are 23 species of woodpecker in North America, though one is likely extinct. Of these, seven species can be reliably found in Missouri, with the Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Hairy Woodpecker being the most commonly encountered. Three other species are also possible – though, sadly, most ornithologists consider one, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, to be extinct. It’s become the Holy Grail of North American birds, so definitely still keep an eye out for one just in case!
Missouri Woodpeckers at a Glance
- Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
- Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
- Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)
- Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
- Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
- Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
- Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) (rare incidental)
- Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) (extirpated)
- Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) (likely extinct)
Keep reading for tips on how to find and observe Missouri’s most common woodpeckers, starting with a quick overview of these fascinating birds.
Overview of Woodpeckers
All woodpeckers are members of the family Picidae, which also includes the piculets and wrynecks. Woodpeckers fall under the subfamily Picinae, which is further split into five tribes. These unusual-looking birds are perfectly adapted to life in the world’s forests – though a few species live in deserts. North American woodpeckers all feature black and white plumage, oftentimes with hints of red or yellow.
Most woodpeckers feature zygodactyl toes – in which two point forward and two point back – and stiff tails, both adaptations that allow them to cling to tree trunks. They also have specialized head anatomy, powerful chisel-like bills, and long, sticky, retractable tongues, all of which enable them to drill into trees and pull out their preferred insect (or, in some cases, sap) prey.
Unlike many other birds, woodpeckers do not sing a conventional song but instead use their strong bills to pound on resonating objects like hollow trees and gutters to create a loud species-specific series of taps – a behavior known as “drumming.” These drums serve the same purpose as a songbird’s song: advertising to mates and proclaiming territory.
All woodpeckers are cavity nesters, meaning they excavate holes in trees and raise their young within them. Oftentimes, the best way to locate and observe woodpeckers is to listen for their calls and drums and look for signs of foraging and nesting, like suspicious holes in trees.
Though its common name is a tad deceptive, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is certainly a striking bird with its zebra-striped back and red cap – and is probably the easiest woodpecker to find in Missouri.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are hefty birds that are a little larger than robins. Both males and females have uniform black and white stripes and bars on their backs, bright black eyes, round heads, speckled rumps, and lighter buffy tan and gray faces and undersides. Males have distinctive bright red caps that extend down the backs of their necks, while females only have red patches at the backs of their heads.
Males do have a hint of red on their bellies as their name suggests, but the color is often hidden by feathers and can be hard to see. Young birds look similar to adults but lack any red coloring. Red-bellied Woodpeckers fly with the characteristic dip-and-rise pattern of most woodpeckers, exhibiting flashes of white at their wingtips as they flap.
- Length: 9.4 inches
- Weight: 2 – 3.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 13 – 16.5 inches
Both males and females communicate with each other using loud, rising high-pitched “churr” calls, harsher “cha cha” calls, and deep growl-like sounds. Males often perform a steady 19-beat-per-second drum. They call and drum most often in the spring and summer months.
Range and Habitat
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are year-round residents of Missouri and much of the United States’ eastern forests. They live throughout the state anywhere there are trees, including in dense pine and hardwood forests, open woodlands, and even suburban areas. They show a slight preference for wetter low-elevation areas, like river corridors and wetlands.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers mostly eat insects and spiders, though they have also been observed catching baby birds, fish, and lizards. In fall and winter, they supplement their protein-rich diet with nuts, acorns, pine cones, fruit, sap, and seeds. They frequently visit bird feeders that offer their favorite treats: suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts, and also occasionally drink from hummingbird feeders.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers spend most of their days foraging for insects about halfway up tree trunks and along main branches. They peel back bark and drill into trees, feasting on the insects within. They also stash food like acorns and nuts in crevices for later use. Young birds are known to play by flying erratically, perching oddly, and calling animatedly.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers nest in snags, dead branches in live trees, and fence posts. They typically create a new cavity each year but sometimes reuse an old nest – or steal one from another woodpecker. Males usually begin the construction process as part of courtship, but females often join in later. They may raise several broods of two to six young at a time each year.
Find This Bird
The best way to find Red-bellied Woodpeckers is to visit a wooded area and listen for their loud calls and drums in spring and summer. In winter, stake out a feeder that offers their favorite foods. These birds are not shy and, if they are around, they will make their presence known!
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are adapting well to life alongside humans, so long as wooded areas with dead trees or suitable nest boxes are available. In fact, their numbers are increasing and they are expanding their range northward each year.
The adorable Downy Woodpecker is known for its petite size, acrobatic movements, and bold black and white coloration. These tiny birds are frequent visitors at bird feeders.
Being just barely larger than a sparrow, the Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. Both males and females are snowy white with black white-spotted wings, white upper backs, black facial stripes, and a cream-colored tuft of feathers at the base of their bills. Males feature slightly larger bills and a red spot on their napes which is absent in females and young birds – though juveniles sport red caps.
Downy Woodpeckers can be distinguished from their close cousins, Hairy Woodpeckers, by their smaller size, shorter bills, and the black spots on their white outer tail feathers. They fly in the undulating rise-and-fall pattern typical of most woodpeckers.
- Length: 5.5 – 6.7 inches
- Weight: 0.7 – 1 ounce
- Wingspan: 9.8 – 11.8 inches
Both males and females issue a lively whinnying call that slightly descends in pitch as well as “pik” calls and whirring wing noises. Both sexes drum a steady but very fast-paced series on trees.
Range and Habitat
Downy Woodpeckers can be found throughout most of North America. In Missouri, they are year-round residents of deciduous forests, woodlands, streamside forests, parks, orchards, and suburban backyards.
Downy Woodpeckers feed on insects like caterpillars, ants, and wood-boring beetle larvae as well as berries, acorns, and seeds. They also visit bird feeders, especially those offering black oil sunflower seeds, peanut butter, millet, and suet. Sometimes they also drink from hummingbird feeders.
Downy Woodpeckers stay in constant motion as they forage, climbing on tree trunks, grasses, flower stems, and branches with ease. When on trees, they typically move from side to side or down far more often than up. They may also perch like a songbird. In winter, these tiny woodpeckers often join mixed flocks at feeders.
During spring, pairs often perform fluttering display flights. Both sexes work together to excavate a nest hole, usually on the underside of a broken dead deciduous tree branch. They typically raise one clutch of three to eight young each year.
Find This Bird
Listen for Downy Woodpecker calls and drums in wooded areas throughout Missouri in spring and summer, when they are most vocal and territorial. In winter, check out feeders and pay extra close attention to chickadee and nuthatch flocks as one of these tiny black-and-white woodpeckers could be in their midst.
Luckily, Downy Woodpeckers are doing well throughout their range. They are adaptable birds, and can even live in open areas so long as some wood – like fenceposts for nesting – is available.
Hairy Woodpeckers are nearly identical to their cousins, the Downy Woodpeckers. They can be distinguished by several key morphological, behavioral, and vocal differences and provide a great chance to practice birding skills!
Hairy Woodpeckers are about the size of robins. They are boldly patterned in black and white, with bright white underbellies and backs, white upper backs, black white-spotted wings, tufts of cream-colored feathers at the base of their bills, and black and white facial stripes. Males have a red spot on their napes, while females lack red altogether. Young birds all feature red caps.
They can be distinguished from the closely related Downy Woodpeckers by their overall larger size, longer and heftier bills, and pure white outer tail feathers. Hairies also fly in the undulating rise-and-fall pattern typical of most woodpeckers.
- Length: 7.1 – 10.2 inches
- Weight: 1.4 – 3.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 13 – 16 inches
Both male and female Hairy Woodpeckers issue long whinnying calls, though they do not descend in pitch near the end like those of the Downy Woodpecker. They also produce single-note “pik” calls – though they are louder than those of the Downy – and whirring wing noises. Both males and females drum a rolling 26-beat-per-second “song.”
Range and Habitat
Hairy Woodpeckers live in forests throughout most of North America, though they have a preference for mature woods with large trees. They are year-round residents in Missouri, frequenting all types of forests, including those recently burned, as well as open woodlands, parks, swamps, and suburban backyards.
Hairy Woodpeckers feed on a wide variety of insects, including wood-boring beetle larvae, ants, moth pupae, caterpillars, and even bees and wasps. They supplement their protein-heavy diets with seeds, fruit, and sap and sometimes visit feeders that offer sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet.
Hairy Woodpeckers spend much of their time foraging for insects within tree bark, climbing up trunks, hopping along branches, or pecking at the base of pines. Sometimes, they follow the larger Pileated Woodpeckers through the woods and scavenge their excavation holes for leftovers. Due to their larger size, Hairy Woodpeckers never forage on grasses or weeds like the smaller Downy Woodpeckers and are more often seen on tree trunks.
Hairy Woodpecker courtship displays can be quite animated, with posturing, calling, and aerial antics. Pairs work together to excavate a hole in the underside of a slanting dead branch, where they then raise a single brood of three to six young each year.
Find This Bird
Take a stroll in a Missouri forest in spring or summer and listen for the loud calls, drumming, and steady tapping of courting and foraging Hairy Woodpeckers. In the winter, stake out feeders near woodlands that offer their preferred treats and you’ll likely find one before too long.
Owing to their adaptability, Hairy Woodpeckers are currently doing quite well throughout their range. However, as forest-adapted birds, habitat loss and fragmentation will likely become an issue in the coming years.
The aptly named Red-headed Woodpecker is so showy that it’s earned the nickname “flying checkerboard.” They are bold and aggressive, often chasing off much larger birds.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are slightly larger than robins and have large round heads. As adults, both males and females have brilliant red heads and bibs, bright white underparts, white rumps, black backs, black and white wings, and strong gray bills. Young birds are a mottled brown and white with variable red head patches. Unlike other woodpeckers, they fly fairly straight without dipping.
- Length: 7.5 – 9 inches
- Weight: 2 – 3.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5 inches
Both male and female Red-headed Woodpeckers can be quite vocal and produce a variety of raspy and hoarse calls. Their most common call is a high-pitched “churr” or “weah!” Their repeated drum consists of two parts: a two-note hammer followed by a rapid stuttering roll of 19 to 25 beats per second.
Range and Habitat
Red-headed Woodpeckers can be found throughout the central and eastern United States. While they are migratory in the northern regions, they are year-round residents in Missouri. They prefer open deciduous woodlands with understories and stands of dead trees that include nut-producing oak and beech trees, but can also be found in farmland, clearings with scattered trees, and parks.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are quite omnivorous for woodpeckers, feeding on a combination of insects – like beetles and grasshoppers – fruits, beech and acorn nuts, and seeds. They also occasionally eat mice, eggs, bark, and nestlings. In winter, they will also visit feeders that offer nuts, suet, and fruit.
Red-headed Woodpeckers spend their days foraging along tree trunks and branches in forests, moving from the ground all the way up to the treetops depending on the season. Amazingly, they can even catch insects out of the air like flycatchers. They also stash nuts and live insects in bark crevices to feast on during the long winters.
Courtship involves playful chasing and hiding. Males select potential nest sites in dead deciduous trees or branches and females inspect and approve them. They then construct the nest hole together and raise one or two broods of up to 10 nestlings. Unlike other woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers often reuse the same nest cavity each year.
Find This Bird
To find a Red-headed Woodpecker, stroll through any open woodland with standing dead trees and listen for their raspy calls and characteristic drumming. Also, check out feeders offering their preferred foods in winter.
Unfortunately, Red-headed Woodpeckers are steadily declining due to the removal of snags and wild nut-producing trees, and car collisions.
Northern Flickers are large, unusual woodpeckers with big voices and plumage of understated beauty. They have many nicknames, ranging from “wake-up” to “gawker bird.”
Northern Flickers are quite large for woodpeckers, being a little bigger and bulkier than an American Robin. They are primarily beige with pronounced black bibs, circular black spots on their underparts, gray crowns, red spots near their napes, white rumps, long slightly decurved bills, and yellow coloration on the undersides of their wings and tails. (In some populations, this coloration is red but Missouri birds are the yellow-shafted form.)
Males have a black mustache that is absent in females and juveniles. They fly with a less pronounced dip-and-rise pattern.
- Length: 11 – 12.2 inches
- Weight: 3.9 – 5.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5 – 20 inches
Northern Flickers mainly issue a long series of notes that fluctuates in pitch and volume as it progresses and an unmistakable loud single-note call that sounds like “kleer!” Both males and females produce a fast, even-spaced 25-beat-per-second drum.
Range and Habitat
Northern Flickers occur throughout North and Central America. In Missouri, they are year-round residents. They live in open forests of all kinds and will even venture into city parks and backyards.
Northern Flickers eat mostly insects, having a preference for ant larvae and beetles. In winter, they supplement their diet with seeds and fruit.
Unlike other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers often forage on the ground, picking apart ant hills and cow patties in search of insects. In spring and summer, they actively drum on the loudest objects they can find and often square off with rivals in animated aerial displays. Mated flickers typically excavate cavities in dead wood together and raise one brood of up to eight young. They often reuse the same nest each year.
Find This Bird
Since Northern Flickers often forage on the ground, simply walking through a woodland may be enough to scare one up. Look for their white rumps, dipping flight, and yellow wing undersides as you go. Also, listen for their unmistakable calls.
Overall, Northern Flicker populations are stable, though numbers are decreasing slightly, likely due to habitat loss and competition with European Starlings.
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are specialized woodpeckers that feed on tree sap rather than insects. You’ll often notice their intentional-looking series of tiny holes in trees first.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are small sparrow-sized birds. Like most North American woodpeckers, they are predominantly black and white, with striking striped markings on their faces, long bills, and noticeable white wing patches. As their name suggests, they have pale yellow underbellies. Both males and females have red crowns but only males have red throats. Young birds are a mottled brown and white. They fly in a rise-and-fall pattern.
- Length: 7.1 – 8.7 inches
- Weight: 1.5 – 1.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 13.4 – 15.8 inches
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers issue a high-pitched “mewing” call as well as repeated raspy parrot-like “kwee-ah!” calls. In spring and summer, males often drum a loud, slow sequence that sounds like morse code. However, in their winter range, they are often silent aside from pecking.
Range and Habitat
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers live throughout eastern North America. Unlike many other woodpeckers, they are migratory, breeding in Canada and spending their winters in Missouri and farther south into Central America. During winter, they can be found in mixed forests of all kinds, though they have a preference for hardwood deciduous forests.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are specialized sap feeders, drilling a series of shallow holes in the bark of hardwood trees – like birch and maples – to access the sugary fluids within using their brushy tongues. They tend their sap wells and return to the same ones repeatedly. They also eat small insects and fruit.
In winter, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers spend their days foraging, climbing up and down trees, gathering insects from the bark and occasionally darting out to catch insects in midair like flycatchers. They also invest a lot of energy in maintaining, guarding, and feeding from their sap wells.
Find This Bird
The best way to find a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in winter is to find a sap well. Look for hardwood trees peppered with tiny symmetrical holes and wait. Sapsuckers are rarely far from their food farms.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have increased recently, likely due to the logging of dense old-growth forests, which has given way to more orchards and mixed woodlands full of sap trees.
With the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker is now the largest woodpecker in North America. Their large size and red crests make them unmistakable.
Pileated Woodpeckers are massive – about the size of crows. They are mostly black, with white neck and facial stripes and white patches in the wings visible during flight. Both males and females have raised red crests, but only males have red foreheads and mustaches. They have long, powerful bills and, unlike other woodpeckers, fly more directly without strong dipping and rising.
- Length: 15.8 – 19.3 inches
- Weight: 8.8 – 12.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 26 – 29.5 inches
Pileated Woodpeckers frequently issue long, steady series of loud melancholy notes that travel throughout the forest. Both males and females drum year-round, producing a slow three-second series of notes.
Range and Habitat
Pileated Woodpeckers occur in the heavily forested regions of North America. In Missouri, they are year-round residents. They live in mature forests, mixed woodlands, cypress swamps, and suburban backyards – pretty much anywhere with at least a few large dead trees.
Pileated Woodpeckers feed mostly on carpenter ants – a type of ant that specializes in eating dead wood. They also eat wood-boring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects. They supplement their diet with nuts and fruit and sometimes visit bird feeders for suet.
Pileated Woodpeckers forage on large logs and standing dead trees, taking them from tree trunks to the forest floor. They drill deep holes, often creating a loud racket and piles of wood chips below. Pairs are monogamous, excavating large nest cavities in standing dead trees and defending a large territory year-round. They raise one brood of up to five young each year.
Find This Bird
To find a Pileated Woodpecker, walk through a mature woodland and look for their large, deep rectangular holes in trees and logs. As you go, listen for their long calls, drums, and powerful whacks created by their foraging.
Luckily, Pileated Woodpecker populations are increasing. These adaptable birds make use of a variety of woodlands – so long as some snags and logs are kept in place.
These three woodpeckers are not common but can occur in Missouri.
Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis)
This unique dark-colored woodpecker lives primarily in the western United States and is a rare visitor to Missouri. These birds are rarely seen during spring and fall migration and sometimes stop by in the winter.
This endangered social bird was extirpated from Missouri when the last old-growth pine forests were logged. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find this rare woodpecker in the state, but check mature forests just in case. It looks quite similar to the Downy Woodpecker.
Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)
Most ornithologists now consider this massive woodpecker to be extinct. Historically, it lived in the old-growth forests of southeastern Missouri but has not been seen there in decades. Still, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for this giant white-winged, red-crested woodpecker in mature forests.
With its wide variety of forests and wooded habitats, Missouri is home to seven common North American woodpecker species. To find these birds, visit areas with big trees. Look for signs of foraging, like suspicious holes in trees, and listen for their characteristic calls and drums. Staking out feeders that offer nuts and suet can offer great close-up views of several of these amazing birds.
Answer: According to eBird sightings, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker in Missouri, likely because it often visits feeders.
Answer: While many woodpeckers are small and black and white, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers best fit this description in Missouri. If the bird has a bright red head, it could also be a Red-headed Woodpecker.
Answer: Woodpeckers are adapted to life in forests and woodlands. Leaving trees and some standing snags and logs around can provide foraging and nesting habitats. Offering water and nuts, fruits, and suet at feeders can also attract a few species to your yard.
- Alderfer, J., et al. (2006). Complete Birds of North America (2nd Edition). National Geographic Society.
- Kaufman, K. (1996). Lives of North American Birds (1st Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All about Birds
- Missouri Department of Conservation
- National Audubon Society