Meet 9 Types of Woodpeckers in North Carolina

North Carolina boasts some pretty stunning nature areas, like the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cape Hatteras, and, of course, the Great Smoky Mountains. 

That means that North Carolinians have some pretty exceptional opportunities to spot birds like woodpeckers in their natural habitat. Woodpeckers feed on nuts, sap, insects, and seeds, and they mostly stick to wooded areas since that’s where all the good food is.

There are over twenty species of woodpeckers in the US, and eight species make their home in North Carolina, with an additional species that hasn’t been seen in a while. But experts hope that it might still live in the state. Want to learn more? 

Here are the species you might see in North Carolina:

  1. Downy Woodpecker
  2. Hairy Woodpecker
  3. Pileated Woodpecker
  4. Northern Flicker
  5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  6. Red-headed Woodpecker
  7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  8. Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  9. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

9 Types of Woodpeckers in North Carolina

1. Downy Woodpecker

downy woodpecker
Male Downy Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens

Size: 7 inches long

Weight: 0.75-0.99 ounces 

Wingspan: 10-12 inches

The smallest woodpecker species in the US, the downy woodpecker is extremely common across North America. Another great thing for birdwatchers is that it doesn’t migrate. Instead, it makes states like North Carolina its home year-round, which means you might be able to spot it even during the winter.

You can find this itty-bitty woodpecker pretty much anywhere. It lives in rural areas, cities, suburban yards, and wilderness areas. During the wintertime, they flock with other common birds such as chickadees and nuthatches. They build their nests in the cavity of trees where they live and raise their young. While they may change their habitat range during the seasons, they don’t ever go too far.

Downy woodpeckers are black and white, with distinctly spotted wings and a white chest. Adult males have a bright red cap on the back of their heads, which makes them easy to identify from females.

If you want to watch these birds in the wild, put a suet feeder in your yard. They love them and will come to hang out for a bit so that you can observe their antics.

Because of their small size, they can access parts of the tree or land on small stems of plants to hunt for food. They’re also small enough that they often make nests in the wood siding of homes, much to the dismay of homeowners.

2. Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy woodpecker

Scientific name: Picoides villosus

Size: 7.5 inches

Weight: 1.4-3.4 ounces

Wingspan: 13-16 inches

Hairy woodpeckers are sometimes confused with downy woodpeckers, but you can tell them apart because hairy woodpeckers are bigger and they also have a longer bill. Their bill is almost the same length as their head. They are black and white all over their bodies. You can tell the genders apart because the adult males have a little red spot on the back of their heads.

These distinctive woodpeckers aren’t as common in cities as their cousin, the downy woodpecker, but you can still see them in parks, suburban areas, cemeteries, and other quiet wooded or open areas. They also visit suet feeders in suburban backyards.

Like their cousin the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpeckers don’t migrate during the cold weather. They stay put all year. They make their nests in the cavities of dead trees. Research published in The Journal of Wildlife Management found that they prefer forests that have been burned recently.

Populations have been declining in the past few decades because they’re losing their habitat. They also face pressure from invasive birds like European starlings, which steal their nesting spots.

3. Pileated Woodpecker

pileated woodpecker
Male Pileated Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus

Size: 16-19 inches

Weight: 9-14 ounces

Wingspan: 30 inches

The pileated woodpecker lives in every part of North Carolina all year round. They often make their nests in utility poles or high up in tall trees that have died. They love to munch on carpenter ants, and they will dig distinct rectangular holes deep into the wood to find them.

They’ll also eat nuts and berries and have even been known to make a meal out of poison ivy berries. You may occasionally see them foraging on the ground for food, but they prefer to fee and hang out in the treetops.

These woodpeckers are mostly black and white like many other woodpecker species, but they are distinct because of their bright red crest. The males also have a red stripe on the side of their faces. These are larger birds, about the same size as a crow.

The pileated woodpecker doesn’t migrate and stays in the same area to feed and breed. They will, however, move their nest to a different spot nearby if the eggs fall out of it or if a European starling kicks them out.

Fun fact: The cartoon bird Woody Woodpecker was likely based on this species.

4. Northern Flicker

northern flicker
Male Northern Flicker

Scientific name: Colaptes auratus

Size: 11-12 inches

Weight:  4-6.5 ounces

Wingspan: 16.5-20 inches

The northern flicker is one of the common types of woodpeckers in North Carolina. It lives in open habitats near trees, as well as in quiet parks and cemeteries. They are a frequent visitor to suet feeders in suburban and urban yards, so make sure to put one out if you want to encourage them to visit. You may also see them hunting around on the ground rather than in the trees. 

The males, females, and juveniles all differ in appearance from each other. On top of that, they can look different depending on the region where they live. That means a juvenile in North Carolina will look different from one in California. 

Despite their differences, they do have some similarities. They are brown in color overall, with black spots. The underside of the wings and tails are yellow in the eastern half of the US and red in the western half of the US. 

Some have a red or black stripe on their cheeks, and many of them have large, black crescents on their chest. Others have red marks on the back of the head. Some have a slightly gray head.

In the spring, you can hear the calls of Northern flickers as they mate and nest. It’s a distinctive sound, and once you know how to identify their calls and drumming, it’s easy to tell when they’re around.

They mostly eat ants, but they’ll dine on insects such as caterpillars, beetles, and termites if they find them. There are also reports that they can catch young bats as they leave the nest. You can entice them to visit your home by offering a suet feeder in your yard.

Northern flickers that live in Alaska and Canada will migrate to areas that have higher temperatures in the south during the winter. Otherwise, they tend to stay put.

Studies show that Northern Flickers can lose their nests to invaders like European starlings, which is putting pressure on their populations.

5. Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus

Size: 9.5 inches

Weight: 2.0-3.2 ounces

Wingspan: 13.0-16.5 inches

You’d probably expect these woodpeckers to have distinctive red bellies given their name, but that’s not the case. Typically, the red-bellied woodpecker has a cream-colored belly. Their back and wing feathers are black and white striped, and the females have a red nape. The males have a red nape and crown.

So, where on earth did the name come from if they don’t have a red belly? These woodpeckers actually do have red feathers on their stomach area, but white feathers usually cover them up, so you can’t see them. You’d have to be really close to be able to tell that there is red underneath there.

These are highly active birds that live all across the Eastern United States. You can spot them in the air as they fly by their unique undulating flight pattern.

Otherwise, look for them in oak and hickory trees, where they like to feed and nest. They’ll also visit suet feeders now and then, but not as often as other species. It’s still worth a try to entice them with a feeder, though.

6. Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed woodpecker

Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Size: 7.5-9.1 inches

Weight: 2.0-3.2 ounces

Wingspan: 16.5 inches

Red-headed woodpeckers are gorgeous birds. They stand out with solid black wings with a big white patch on them and white bodies. They have a deep, dark red head and neck that is so vibrant it looks like velvet. Once you see one, you’ll easily be able to identify them by that beautiful red marking.

The juveniles are brownish-black with white spots on the wings and dull red cheeks.

They don’t live anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains, but they can be found in all parts of the eastern half of the US, from Canada to Florida. They winter in Texas, southern Ohio, and northern Mexico, and breed in the northern end of the US and southern Canada. They live in areas like North Carolina year-round.

This is one of the few woodpeckers out there who collect and store food for the winter months. They’ll pack seeds and nuts that they find in the warmer months into bark or holes in trees. They have even been known to stuff food under roof shingles. 

They also hunt their prey, snatching insects out of the air, which is another rare behavior for woodpeckers.

7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius

Size: 7.1-8.7 inches

Weight: 1.5-1.9 ounces

Wingspan: 13.4-15.8 inches

The beautiful yellow-bellied sapsucker lives in the eastern half of North Carolina year-round when they aren’t breeding. Otherwise, they migrate north to breed. 

These birds are primarily black and white, with black and white barred wings and back. You can tell the difference between males and females because the male’s throat is bright red. Females, on the other hand, have a white throat. Both the females and males have red foreheads.

So what’s with the name yellow belly? The females do have a faint yellow coloring to their bellies, but it might be so light that you might not be able to identify it, so don’t rely on that to help you confirm your sighting. The males have a cream belly.

The birds make tiny holes in wood with their beaks, and then they wait for the sweet sap to leak out from the tree. They lick this up with their tongues, snatching up any insects that crawl along and get themselves stuck in the sap in the process.

You might see them feed at backyard suet feeders, but they mostly stick to forested areas.

8. Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Photo Credit: Gary Leavens by CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Dryobates borealis

Size: 7.9-9.1 inches

Weight: 1.5-1.8 ounces

Wingspan: 14.2 inches

This non-migratory species lives year round in its habitat, which includes the southern states of the US from Virginia down the coast to Florida and as far west as the eastern edge of Texas.

You might expect this bird to have a dramatic red mark, given its name. In actuality, only the males have any red at all, and it’s a tiny little stripe on its cheek. Don’t try to identify this bird by the little streak, however. It’s pretty much impossible to see unless you’re right up close.

The rest of the bird is black and white with barred stripes on the wings and a mottled pattern on the chest. The head is white with a black crown and stripe down the cheek that extends down the neck. The males and females look similar.

This bird has been losing its habitat due to logging and suburban spread. It is on the conservation red watch list and has been endangered since 1970. It lives in old growth, long-leaf pine forests, so it’s unlikely that you’ll see this in your backyard.

If you go out hunting to spot this bird, be aware that many of its habitats are protected and closed to public access. Bird watchers may, however, be able to obtain permission to search for them.

9. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Photo Credit: Raw Pixel by CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Campephilus principalis 

Size: 18.1-20.1 inches

Weight: 15.9-20.1 ounces

Wingspan: 29.9-31.5 inches

The ivory-billed woodpecker is massive. It’s the largest North American species. This woodpecker lives across the southern US from Florida to Texas in areas where flooding and fires have made it easier for them to dine on their favorite food: beetle larvae.

Unfortunately, deforestation caused their populations to drop dramatically during the 19th century. As of the mid 1900s, there were only a few left in the wild and people worried that they might be extinct. But in 2004, they were spotted in Arkansas, renewing hope that they might still be around.

Keep a good eye out for this bird. It has a long, straight, ivory-colored bill and is black and white. The males have a red crest, while the females have a black one. They both have white streaks that extend down the back. Remember, it’s extremely large, so it should be easy to differentiate from other woodpeckers.

If you do happen to spot one, be sure to let your local government and bird clubs know. Tim Gallagher, who spotted the bird in 2004, argues in an article for Audubon that while some government experts want to declare the bird extinct, there is compelling evidence that they still exist in the swamps and bayous of the south.

Also Read: Owls in NC

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