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North Carolina Woodpeckers

The Largest NC Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpeckers are common visitors to NC. This one was photographed in Asheville, NC.

Pileated Woodpeckers are common visitors to NC. This one was photographed in Asheville, NC.

NC Is Home To 8 Species Of Woodpeckers

NC is home to 8 species of woodpeckers. They all have some common features but no two are exactly alike. The ringing laugh of the pileated woodpecker, the brightly colored head of the red headed wood pecker and distinctive barred pattern on the back of the red cockaded woodpecker are very distinctive features that make woodpeckers easy to distinguish.

Woodpeckers can be found in every type of forest, drumming away with their pointy beaks. They perch upright on the sides of trees and use their beaks to excavate homes and hunt for food. As a group, woodpeckers have several adaptations that make living the way they do possible. For one, their brains are cushioned by an air sac that prevents them from giving themselves a concussion every time they try to eat. For another, they all have specialized tongues. This feature helps them grasp prey deep inside holes drilled into the sides of dead trees, lick sap from oozing holes and penetrate rotting logs. Many woodpecker species are commonly found in NC backyards and will readily come to a feeder, if the right treats are available.

Pileated Woodpecker Call

Woody Woodpecker Is A Classic Character

The Pileated Woody Woodpecker

There is at least one woodpecker that is unmistakable, and I don't mean Woody Woodpecker. However, the one I mean is the basis for said famous cartoon. This largest NC woodpecker is often seen high in trees banging away or flying through the air laughing away. I'm talking about the Pileated Woodpecker. The rear pointing tuft, colorful feathers and resounding call are so distinctive they inspired Walter Lantz to create his famous cartoon character and continue to inspire children and adults today.

The call of the Pileated Woodpecker is one of the most recognizable of all the NC birdcalls. I have been appreciating and enjoying the sound for more than 30 years and still feel the same amazement and joy I did as a child. It is a series of short barks or chirps that sounds like a deep belly laugh. If you hear one you will know for sure there is a woodpecker nearby. The pileated woodpecker is also one of the largest forest birds in North America and an important part of the forest ecosystem. Pileated woodpeckers can be found across eastern and northern North America all the way to the west coast anywhere there are large trees and forests. They are not found in the mid or south west.

Their preferred food is the carpenter ant. These ants are large and juicy, carving huge nests inside of trees until they eventually cause it to die. Woodpeckers drill holes into the trees hunting for the ants. PIleated woodpeckers have a chisel shaped beak and leave a very distinctive square hole. They use this beak to their advantage creating large cavities inside of dead trees to raise their young. After they leave the cavities become homes to other woodland species like woodducks, owls, bats and others.

NC Woodpecker With A Red Head

Red Headed Woodpeckers are often found around feeders munching on seed and suet.

Red Headed Woodpeckers are often found around feeders munching on seed and suet.

Red Headed Woodpeckers Visit Bird Feeders

If you've ever seen a Red Headed Woodpecker at your feeder you can't help but notice it's bold red head. Out of all the woodpeckers with red in their name or on their plumage this is the one most aptly named. Many of them have very little red, inconspicuous red or red in some place other than where the name says it is. Not this one. The Red Headed Woodpecker has a brilliant, ruby toned, shiny red head. This is a medium to small woodpecker about the size of a robin that can be found in lightly wooded areas and grasslands including suburban neighborhoods. The woodpeckers as a group are a spectacular bunch but I think this one is my favorite.

Another distinction from other woodpeckers is its eating habits. Red headed woodpeckers drill holes in trees like other woodpeckers but also catch insects in the air, eat small nuts and even store food in tree hollows for later use. Most woodpeckers have some form of spotted, barred or striped patterns on their feathers. The red headed does not, it is boldly colored white below with a black top and black and white wings. Red headed woodpeckers are often found visiting feeders, especially in the winter. The best way to attract them is to offer large seeds, nuts like pecan, corn, acorns and dried fruit. Suet that includes these things is a great choice to.

Downy Woodpecker Perched On A Branch

The Downy Woodpecker is a small woodpecker with white spots or bars on its back.

The Downy Woodpecker is a small woodpecker with white spots or bars on its back.

A Smallish Woodpecker With White Spots

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest NC woodpecker, about the size of a nuthatch or chickadee. In fact, the Downy will sometimes be found in mixed flocks with these birds. Downies are common visitors to feeders where they like to feast of small seeds and suet. Downy woodpeckers are skillful flyers and can be seen zipping in and around trees. They have the standard upright body plan and sharp chisel like bill of other woodpeckers and are easily confused with the much larger Hairy Woodpecker.

Downy Woodpeckers prefer open woodland and overgrown meadowland where they have their choice of food sources. They can peck away at a tree looking for insects or they can hunt on the ground for insects, seeds and small fruits. This is the most likely of all the woodpeckers to be found at a feeder. They can be attracted with sunflower seeds, suet and my favorite, chunky peanut butter.

Endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker

The endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker loves NC forests.

The endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker loves NC forests.

Not Much Red On A Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Red Cockaded Woodpeckers are a hot topic in North Carolina and other states where they can be found. This woodpecker is protected because it is being endangered by habitat destruction. Now, wherever they are found is becoming protected land. Red cockaded woodpeckers prefer the habitat of mature southern pine forests. The same forests prized by lumber companies. The destruction of the long leaf pine forest is the leading cause of Red Cockaded Woodpecker decline.

Red cockaded woodpeckers need the trees for more than just food. They dig holes in the trees in which they lay their eggs. It can two to three years for a family of woodpeckers to make one hole sufficiently sized. Because of this they usually have several holes going at once, and use the best one. Red cockaded only use live trees to build their nest cavities. The running sap that oozes from the hole helps to keep snakes and other potential threats away from the nest.

You Red Bellied Wood Pecking Bird!

The Red Bellied Woodpecker has a brilliant red cap on top of its head, striking spots on its back and no red belly.

The Red Bellied Woodpecker has a brilliant red cap on top of its head, striking spots on its back and no red belly.

The Misnamed Red Bellied Woodpecker

This is the most misnamed woodpecker found in North Carolina. The Red Bellied Woodpecker, It should be called the Red Capped Woodpecker or maybe the Red Crested Woodpecker. There is no red on the belly of this beautiful bird but there is a bright red crest on the top of its head. The rest of the body is a soft tawny color. The wings are black with distinct horizontal white bars.

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The Red Bellied Woodpecker is commonly found in forests east of the Mississippi River. They can be found in all types of forests including open woodland, parks and neighborhoods. This is one of the woodpeckers you can find at a backyard feeding station. They can be attracted with the usual large seeds and suet as other woodpeckers. Unlike other woodpeckers who drill holes into the bark of trees the Red Bellied Woodpecker prefers to hunt for insects on the outside of the tree.

The Yellow Shafted Northern Flicker

The Yellow Shafted Northern Flicker is a widespread woodpecker of North America.

The Yellow Shafted Northern Flicker is a widespread woodpecker of North America.

The Northern Flicker

One of the best ways to identify the Northern Flicker is by the red Vee on the back of its head. This red spot, not uncommon in woodpeckers, is distinct because of it's shape. Northern Flickers can sometimes be mistaken for Red Bellied Woodpeckers but there are two differences to look for. First the red on the back of the head, the Red Bellied Woodpecker has more red. And then look at the face, the Northern Flicker has red cheeks where the Red Bellied has no red.

Flickers are often found on the ground where they hunt for beetles and ants. The bill of this woodpecker is slightly curved and suited to its task. Another striking feature, usually seen as the birds fly away, is the bright white rump. I often seen a brownish streak flying across the back yard and know it is a Flicker by the white spot staring back at me. North Carolina Northern Flickers, and all other eastern residents, have yellow shafted feathers that can be seen as the birds fly by. In the west they are red shafted.

Flickers don't often visit feeders but they do like to frequent back yards. If you have a forested, scrub or brushy edge to your back yard you may be able to find them along this edge. They are usually on the ground, hidden by the foliage, and will flush when approached. Identify them by the yellow underwings and white rump along with the classic woodpecker upper parts.

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Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers Really Suck Sap!

Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers actually do like to eat sap. They lap it up with their long tongues along with insects and berries.

Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers actually do like to eat sap. They lap it up with their long tongues along with insects and berries.

The Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, What A Fun Name

The Yellow Bellied Sapsucker has one of the most fun names in the birding world. The name brings up images of Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny facing off in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Fun aside this is another remarkable woodpecker found in North Carolina. As the name implies it can be identified by a yellowish belly that is complimented by black wings with white bars, a red face, black and white striped head and yellowish barred back and tail. The Yellow Bellied Sapsucker is a small to medium size woodpecker, about the size of a robin. They can be found perched on the sides of trees puffing out their chests.

Also as the name implies the Sapsucker likes to eat sap. They drill a very recognizable pattern of small holes in the sides of trees and lap up the oozing sap and any trapped insects with their specialized tongue. I find evidence of sapsuckers all the time when I'm out in the woods bike riding. They make tiny holes, called sapwells, about an 1/8 inch or larger in neat rows all over the sides trees. I see this a lot on the sides of old apple trees and sugar maples that can be found all across the NC mountains. Though not a regular at feeders they can be attracted with suet at times.

Hairy Woodpeckers

Hairy Woodpeckers have a shaggy appearance and a red spot on the back of their head.

Hairy Woodpeckers have a shaggy appearance and a red spot on the back of their head.

Hairy Woodpeckers In North Carolina

The Hairy Woodpecker is often a challenge to identify because of it's similarity to the Downy Woodpecker. However, I think that once you get a positive ID on both you will no trouble from that point forward. The two birds do share a close resemblance but on closer inspection the differences are plain. The Hairy Woodpecker is much larger, has less conspicuous barring on the wings and a neat red patch on the back of its head.

Hairy Woodpeckers are commonly found in mature forest across North America. They can also be found regularly at back yard feeders where they enjoy suet, large seeds, nuts and dried fruit. They like to build their homes in hollows dug out of dead trees or limbs. They feed along the trunk and main branches of deciduous trees looking for ants, beetles and signs of other insects located within. They have a much heavier bill than the Downy as well and use it to full effect.


roy burch on March 09, 2019:

My wife and I just watched a wood pecker land on a suet we have placed in the garden. It has a small red patch behind the eye with a yellow crown on top of the head. I don't recall ever seeing this kind before. Can't find any pics. on line either. Any ideas. Couldn't get a pic. of the bird.

Deborah Minter from U.S, California on April 07, 2018:

Love woodpeckers! Beautiful article.

ER on March 12, 2018:

Today it is sleeting and I saw a Northern flicker for the first time i the yard! It was eating from the ground, but not birdseed. It looked like it was sticking its beak in the ground for bugs. Your website gave me great info on this bird. Thanks!

JW on January 23, 2018:

I have a red head woodpecker in my yard in Waxhaw NC. It just showed up 2 days ago. Can they do harm to my tree?

Renee Bowman on September 27, 2017:

We have three different sizes of woodpeckers on our property. I love to sit on the porch and watch them in our large trees.

TMHughes (author) from Asheville, NC on June 09, 2017:

I don't know but sounds interesting. I hope it does come back and you can get a picture. maybe its a rare migratory species or something moving into a new range. Thanks for the props. Let me know if you figure it out, i'd love to know. I just added a few new species to my back yard list I've never seen around the house before, very exiting stuff!

Mia Barr on June 08, 2017:

I'm new to this ,but noticed tonight around 730pm in Hendersonville, NC, a yellow/golden woodpecker /flicker (?) On my feeder, in 10 years I've never seen one of this color, smaller than my pileated woodpeckers but not by a lot, very nervous while getting suet and didn't stay too long, I'm hoping it will return and I will be able to get a picture of it, but from the color I was thinking a gold finch but upon closer observation, it was much much larger and looked like a yellow woodpecker with red crest at back part of head like a pileated ...I'm at a loss on this one, I sure hope I didnt scare him away. Do we get such things here in WNC? Loved reading your article very helpful as I've been looking all night for a bird that resembles what I saw tonight.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 09, 2013:

This was a delightful piece that I enjoyed reading from start to finish. You definitely have your share of woodpeckers in NC. Keep up the good work!

Michelle Dee from Charlotte, NC on May 08, 2013:

I didn't know all these birds existed in North Carolina. They are gorgeous and I will keep my eyes open while hiking from now on. Sometimes I do hear them knocking on wood though! Very informative hub. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and across.

TMHughes (author) from Asheville, NC on May 08, 2013:

Thanks do much for all the compliments! I love these birds and writing these hubs.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 08, 2013:

A lovely insight to woodpeckers in North Carolina, such awesome colors and birds are just so beautiful and colorful

David R Koehler from Northern Virginia on May 07, 2013:

I'm really enjoying your series on various North Carolina birds. I also really like Pileated Woodpeckers - I haven't seen one in a very long time. I liked the hub on the thrushes as well.

Claudia Parker Hughew on May 07, 2013:

I've been watching woodpeckers at a friend's very large wooded yard. I didn't know there are so many species...very interesting.

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