Woodpeckers in North Carolina: 8 Charismatic State Species

Woodpecker climbing up a tree

Last Updated: April 30, 2022

Many birders find woodpeckers captivating with their unpredictable behavior. Everything about these birds seems interesting, from their seasonal migration to moving from one habitat to another, yet some people know little about them.

Maybe, you're wondering if there are woodpeckers in North Carolina, eating from a suet feeder or busy drumming on trees in the woods.

These birds can be elusive.

You may only have a quick glimpse before they go out of sight behind a tree trunk.

Therefore, please read on and learn more about these charismatic species around the state.

The Diversity Of Woodpecker Species In North Carolina

There are about eight woodpecker species you can find exploiting feeders or hear their loud drumming in North Carolina. You might notice most of these woodpeckers share generic features, but no two birds are entirely identical.

This handy guide aims to describe these eight species of woodpeckers you are likely to encounter around the state. Hopefully, it will give you an excellent start to understanding the birdlife in the area. Here are the most familiar woodpeckers in North Carolina:

1. Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker on bird feeder

The downy woodpecker is our tiny, sociable feathered friend that you probably notice visiting the orchards and feeders. Most people recognize this bird as a natural biological controller of the oak borer beetle, a non-native pest that can wreck forests.

You can recognize an adult downy woodpecker with its large, boldly patterned head in black and white, with a small bill and white underparts. Males sport a red patch on their napes, a feature that females lack. Its diet includes berries and insects in tree barks and trees' small twigs.

Downy woodpeckers are the most undersized woodpeckers in North Carolina and among the ten smallest woodpeckers worldwide.

It prefers habitats with low canopies, exceptionally moist bottomlands, aspen groves, riparian, and open deciduous woodlands. These downy woodpeckers can adapt well to developed areas, like neighborhoods and national parks.

This bird's typical call note sounds like a single, sharp pitch with increasing loudness or rapid, uneven notes during courtship. Its drumming has a uniform sound across this woodpecker's geographic range. 

You will likely hear its drumming from ripped-out canopies, deep bark flakes, or stems throughout the year, but more consistently in winter. Further, the downy is well-known for following the pileated woodpecker, obtaining its leftover foods from extensive excavations.


2. Pileated WoodpeckerPileated Woodpecker feeding its nestling

Do you ever wonder about that enormous bird with a vividly red crest that halts you in your tracks no matter how often you encounter it? If that bird also has a black body, white chin, sizable black bill, and a scarlet mustache, that's the pileated woodpecker.

This woodpecker is as large as a crow and almost double the size of other North American woodpeckers.

Its gigantic size is why most people surmise this bird's mythical status; others even use their scalps as currency. A pileated is known to the Karuk tribe as the dollar bird because they can trade its red plumages on the head for a dollar.

Moreover, the pileated woodpecker is among the most persistent tree climbers than any other woodpecker you'd see scuffing hastily around tree trunks. It roosts in an abandoned cavity tree and inhabits a coniferous forest or a riparian habitat with strewed, large snags.

Pileated woodpeckers even populate broad forests or anywhere there's downed wood or a dead tree. Its call is a loud, laughing series of notes, while drumming is also noisy but relatively slow. This bird's diet includes wood-boring beetle larvae, carpenter ants, and other insects.


3. Hairy WoodpeckerHairy Woodpecker on a bird feeder

Hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers look so much alike; they only differ in the sizable, thicker bill belonging to the hairy woodpecker. Not to mention, that bill is also twice as long. This bird is also as widespread in the North as its relative, the downy woodpecker.

A hairy woodpecker is among the familiar visitors at bird feeders filled with suet, but likewise, it is a regular habitant of wooded suburban surroundings.

Adult male birds of this species have primarily black wings and bright red bands across the center of their napes that females lack. Sometimes, a black stripe divides this red band into two smaller bands or patches. 

You will recognize its call with a trilling, high-pitched sound like a loud ringing rattle on a single pitch. On the other hand, the drum rolls are rapid and slow down at the end. 

While it naturally controls forest beetles, this bird would occasionally feed on spiders and caterpillars, even conifer seeds, acorns, and berries too. It is hardly surprising to encounter this bird drilling its nest in dead trees.

Moreover, this bird is a permanent resident throughout its range; you can find them year-round across the state. Aside from the typical woodpecker habitat, you may also find this feathered friend pecking holes in large, dead snags and branches or drumming in springtime.

If you fancy enticing this woodpecker into your yard, you may try hanging feeders with peanuts and sunflower seeds. Likewise, this creature would find it hard to resist if you place large dead trees or snags between your feeders and the woodlot.


4. Northern FlickerNorthern Flicker on the twigs of the tree

The quickest way to identify a Northern flicker is with its large, long tail and brown and black streaks across the back. It has buff with some black spots underneath, a brown-colored head with some gray from the head to the nape.

Due to geographical variation, Northern flickers from the east have yellowish underwings, while those from the west have reddish.

Also known as the "yellowhammer," this bird displays a fondness for excavating a nest cavity in large ponderosa pine trees. Furthermore, it is a prevalent North American woodpecker, visible in North and South Carolina, and an abundant migrant throughout their range.

In terms of preferred habitats, these birds mostly occupy oak and riparian woodlands, suburbs, and swamps, populating urban and suburban environments in winter. 

The flicker is pretty vocal; its call has a loud, piercing sound, sometimes recurrently drumming its bill at things. Its drumming can be pretty challenging to recognize from hairy and downy woodpeckers. 

If you're into observing this bird, you should also know that the yellowhammer is a ground forager feeding on spiders, termites, nuts, and seeds. Therefore, it is not unusual to see the Northern flicker frequenting a backyard feeder.


5. Red-Bellied WoodpeckerRed-Bellied Woodpecker resting on the branch of a tree

Red-bellied woodpeckers are familiar birds that are opportunistic and well-adapted to various habitats. It mainly enjoys dwelling in mixed woodlands rich in oak-hickory and pine-oak trees, parks, urban areas with mature trees and snags, orchards, savannahs, and plantations.

Contrary to its name, you will not see this species with a red belly; in fact, many would mistake it for the red-headed woodpecker.

This confusion is due to the male's red shade from its forehead, crown, and down to the nape, while the female only has a scarlet nape.

Aside from these features, the redbelly has a black-colored back and wings with white streaks, also known as the "zebra back." You will notice a pale white wing patch in contrast with its dark outer wing when this woodpecker is in-flight.

It is not outlandish for a landowner to hear this bird's territorial drumming; it hammers hard surfaces, like downspouts and chimneys with its bills. Readily accessible food sources, such as fruits, some nuts, acorns, and seeds, attract their kind to a bird feeder.

However, this type of bird is also well-known for its predatory behavior, like stealing and consuming nestling songbirds. Besides feeding a tufted titmouse fledgling, some birdwatchers witnessed the redbelly consuming the eggs of an Acadian flycatcher and an Eastern bluebird.

Many birders find the redbelly's voice disarming. Its call sounds like an explosive nasal note, while you might hear its low-pitched voice in winter. 

The Orton Plantation in Brunswick County provides new birders an excellent opportunity to observe the redbelly around that area during its breeding season.


6. Red-Headed WoodpeckerRed Headed Woodpecker enjoying its meal

If ever you hear a distinct pecking on your tin roof, that's a merry red-headed woodpecker feeling musical. However, you may not see it this way if you hear that loud drumming sound on your window at the break of dawn.

At most times, these woodpeckers stop drumming once they have already established territory.

You can distinguish this redhead with its crimson shade from the head down to its breast. It's pure white underneath and has glossy bluish-black wings, tails, and upperparts. 

Further, this eye-catching bird spends more time in the air, living its fame as the master hunter of flying insects.

Another thing you'd notice is how the redhead stores its food and even uses pieces of wood and bark as a protective covering. Its preferred food ranges from insects to berries, sometimes ground foraging, collecting, or flycatching accessible food sources.

Redbellies prefer to nest and do their flycatching in open deciduous woodlands, while they like clear underwood when ground foraging. These birds also move from dense forests to woodland edges during their breeding season.


7. Yellow-Bellied SapsuckerYellow Bellied Sapsucker eating on the twigs of a tree

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are among the few North American migrating woodpeckers, with females moving farther south than males. A bird of its kind exhibits unique plumage variation; they're all different, whether male or female, young and old, regardless of the season.

These sapsuckers have striking red, black, and white plumages with a soft yellow wash underneath, forked tails, and heavy streaks on their backs.

During the winter, suet can be one of the most effective ways to lure backyard birds, such as this one. Landowners don't mind if yellow-bellied sapsuckers visit their suet cages to feed. Like the red-breasted and red-naped sapsuckers, this bird also drills holes in trees to drink its sap.

It drums with distinctive rhythms, beginning with the typical drum roll, halts, and adding some unhurried strikes. You could expect to hear another sapsucker drumming back in reply. Its call is easy to recognize with its nasal sound that varies when mating, threatened, and during flight.

The yellow-bellied prefer breeding in mixed forests abundant in maple, birch, and aspen trees, sometimes inhabiting riparian and coniferous woods, even swampy habitats at forest edges.

It generally favors a half-plant, half-animal diet, omnivorous at times, with a diet comprising sap and some arthropods.


8. Red-Cockaded WoodpeckerRed Cockaded Woodpecker perched on a branch

Typically, the red-cockaded woodpecker lives in longleaf pine forests. You will mostly find it inhabiting the NC Sandhills region around Southern Pines, the lower Coastal Plain, Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and Croatan National Forest.

The bird has black and white barred plumage on its back; it's drab white underneath and has a noticeable black stripe at the lower side of the neck. It's a woodpecker that cooperatively breeds its young in pairs, often scaling pine trees to forage invertebrates like ants or conifer seeds.

Unfortunately, it is an endangered woodpecker affected by the harsh effects of climate change, like frequent storms leading to habitat destruction.

Before its shutdown, Camp Lejeune, in partnership with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, successfully recovered endangered species such as this woodpecker through nature conservancy.

Combat training is not the only thing that preoccupates the marines; they saved 173 clusters of these woodpeckers under the Endangered Species Act. Thankfully, these woodpeckers won't end up like the ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct in North Carolina.


Frequently Asked Questions

How many species of woodpecker are in North Carolina?

North Carolina is home to eight species of woodpeckers; they are well-known birds for their habitual tree bark probing or nest hole chiseling.

All these birds are under the federal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can spot these woodpeckers in their preferred habitats at specific times of the year.

In this video, you'll learn more about one of North Carolina's woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpecker:

What's the biggest woodpecker in North Carolina?

The Pileated is the largest and most active North Carolina woodpecker, measuring 18 inches long. Their sizable bodies are typical identifiers, aside from their red-crested heads and bold white stripes from their mouths to their necks.

It's also not hard to see this enormous bird within the city limits of Western North Carolina. These birds are natural homebuilders of the forests, so you will likely spot them hammering into dead trees to create a home for other birds.

Is a pileated woodpecker rare? 

It's barely possible not to notice pileated woodpeckers claiming territories with their clamorous drumming calls, but yes, sadly, they start to become increasingly rare. The prevalent logging activities in eastern North America rid these birds of their breeding, roosting, and feeding spots.

Final Thoughts

In summary, learning about the various profiles of these woodpeckers leads to better identification of unique species, making your birding experience more enjoyable.

Aside from the top birding spots across the state mentioned in this article, you may also check out different birding trails for other birding opportunities. The Cedar Point Tideland Trail, for instance, offers excellent chances to view different kinds of woodpeckers.

It is hardly surprising that many places in North Carolina can host visiting birders worldwide. After all, the state is well-known for its geographical diversity, which supports resident breeders and seasonal visitors alike.

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