Identifying woodpeckers in Western N.C.

Published 11:00 am Monday, April 25, 2011

The one nice thing about woodpeckers is that for all intensive purposes, every species superficially looks the same.

They all perch on the sides of trees in a vertical manner, have heavy dagger-shaped bills designed for chiseling into wood, and drum loudly to advertise their presence.

As well as these obvious features, woodpeckers also share many more features that are not as easy to see.

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These include long, bristly tongues adapted to extract insect larvae from deep within wood; heavy feathers around their nostrils to filter out wood dust; thick skulls that have air sacs to help cushion their brains from impact and damage; and nictitating membranes they use to cover their eyes while feeding. In other words, they are supremely adapted to work in the timber industry.

We have seven species of woodpeckers here in Western North Carolina. The most familiar are the downy and hairy woodpeckers, both of which regularly visit a feeding station. Both are predominantly black and white; a common color combination throughout the woodpecker family.

Downy woodpeckers are smaller than the Hairy with shorter bills, black barring on their white outer tail feathers and a lower pitched call note.

Hairy woodpeckers prefer larger trees in which to feed, have long dagger shaped bills and an emphatic high pitched call along with an unusual kingfisher like rattle. Red-bellied woodpeckers are also abundant residents of our eastern woodlands, but it takes a really close and intimate view of this bird to actually see why it is called red-bellied. Some individuals show a strong reddish wash to their belly, but many others barely show any coloration at all. As well as feeding in large trees, the brown northern flicker is also happy feeding on the ground on nests of large wood ants. Another familiar woodpecker is the large and noisy pileated woodpecker.

Unlike its probably extinct cousin, the ivory-billed, the pileated can adapt to human invasion of our woodlands, as long as we preserve large trees where it can nest and feed.

Red-headed woodpeckers are probably the most striking and distinctive of all, but are uncommon at best in our area, although they are regular in fall migration and some individuals may over-winter in the county.

Our last species is the odd yellow-bellied sapsucker, a highly migratory species that can winter as far south as Panama. All four species of sapsuckers make a distinctive series of holes in trees and are the only species of woodpeckers whose feeding habits can damage or even kill young trees.

All of our local woodpeckers are easy to see in their preferred habitats and many will come to seed and suet feeders allowing excellent viewing of their diagnostic characteristics. They are a fascinating family of birds that are perfectly adapted to their arboreal world.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at