Woodpeckers in NC

Woodpeckers in NC: Essential Guide to Species and Habitat

Woodpeckers are a fascinating group of birds that you’ll find in various habitats across North Carolina. Their unique pecking behavior is essential to their local ecosystems by controlling insect populations and creating nesting cavities for other species. The NC state is home to several woodpecker species, each boasting distinctive features and intriguing behaviors.

As you explore the woods and natural areas of North Carolina, you may have the opportunity to spot these captivating birds in action. So, grab your binoculars and immerse yourself in the wonder of woodpeckers in North Carolina.

Species of Woodpeckers in North Carolina

Woodpeckers in NC

In North Carolina, you can find numerous woodpecker species that contribute to the region’s rich biodiversity. The prominent woodpeckers in NC species include:

Downy Woodpecker – Woodpeckers in NC

downy woodpeckers nest


The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest and most common woodpecker in North Carolina. You can identify them by their black and white plumage, with a prominent red patch on the male’s head. They typically inhabit deciduous woodlands and favor insect-infested trees for their diet.


Downy Woodpeckers are incredibly adaptable, and you’ll see them in various habitats throughout North Carolina. These range from dense forests to open woodlands, and they’re even comfortable in suburban and urban areas where trees are present. 

They mainly prefer deciduous habitats, often seen in orchards, city parks, backyards, and roadside trees. They nest in tree cavities or in the hollow stems of plants, with a preference for trees that are infected with insects, providing them both shelter and a food source.

Woodpeckers are not bad for trees as some folks might think.


Downy Woodpeckers have a diverse diet, primarily composed of insects such as caterpillars, beetles, ants, and spiders. They also consume plant materials native to North Carolina. Their plant-based diet includes the seeds of pine, spruce, and other conifers, as well as acorns from oak trees. 

Berries from native shrubs like holly and dogwood are also part of their dietary intake. In winter, they may feed on the suet and seeds provided in bird feeders.

Despite their preference for insect-infested trees, they also forage in healthy trees and shrubs for food. Learn more about what woodpeckers eat here.

Hairy Woodpecker – Woodpeckers in NC

Hairy Woodpecker is a migrating bird


Similar in appearance to the Downy Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker is slightly larger and features a more extended bill. Learn more about the differences between the Downy and Hairy woodpecker in our guide. 

You will recognize them in your backyard or wooded areas throughout North Carolina. Their diet consists mainly of insects, seeds, and berries.


Hairy Woodpeckers are widespread across North Carolina; you’ll likely encounter them in various counties. They are common in Wake County, especially in the William B. Umstead State Park, where the forest ecosystem provides a perfect habitat. 

In Durham County, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and Eno River State Park are excellent bird-watching spots where you can observe these woodpeckers. Further west, Buncombe County, with the expansive Pisgah National Forest and Blue Ridge Parkway, is also a haven for Hairy Woodpeckers. 

Finally, in the coastal New Hanover County, the diverse habitats of Carolina Beach State Park attract these intriguing birds. Keep your eyes open and your binoculars ready, as you’ll see these woodpeckers in rural and suburban North Carolina.


The Hairy Woodpecker’s diet reflects its adaptability and expertise in foraging. These birds are skillful hunters, feeding on insects, including beetles and their larvae, spiders, ants, and caterpillars. 

The Hairy also incorporate plant matter into their diet, enjoying seeds, berries, and even tree sap during certain seasons. Their tendency to frequent bird feeders allows them to supplement their diets with suet and sunflower seeds, a common sight in many North Carolinian backyards. 

Since it has a varied diet, it allows the Hairy Woodpecker to thrive in the diverse habitats of North Carolina.

Northern Flicker – Woodpeckers in NC

Northern Flicker - a NY Woodpecker


The Northern Flicker is unique among North Carolina woodpeckers as they mainly feed on ants and beetles found on the ground. You can distinguish these woodpeckers by their brown plumage, black spots, and red crescent markings on the nape.


The Northern Flicker in North Carolina predominantly thrives in areas where ground foraging is accessible and plentiful, which includes open habitats with sparse tree cover. Regarded as the woodpeckers of the plains, they often inhabit open fields, forest edges, parks, and suburban backyards. 

Their propensity for ground-level insects makes them less forest-dependent than their woodpecker counterparts. In the diverse landscape of North Carolina, you’ll often spot this distinctive bird brightening up the environment with its unique plumage, from the sandy coastal plains to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.


The Northern Flicker’s diet is as distinctive as its plumage, primarily ants and beetles. This ground-feeding woodpecker in NC uses its specialized, long, barbed tongue to lap up these insects, with ants making up a remarkable 45% of their diet. 

Additionally, they consume various other insects and invertebrates, seeds, berries, and fruits. During the colder months, when insects are scarce, they may also visit bird feeders for seeds and suet. This varied diet is crucial in controlling insect populations and maintaining the ecological balance in North Carolina’s diverse habitats.

Pileated woodpecker – Woodpeckers in North Carolina

Pileated Woodpeckers Mate for Life - a pair of Pileated woodpeckers on a tree


The Pileated Woodpecker is the most iconic and largest of the woodpeckers in NC. Their striking black and white plumage and prominent red crest make them easy to spot. They prefer mature forests with plenty of dead trees for foraging.


The Pileated Woodpecker is a fan of mature, deciduous forests abundant with large, dead trees, which they use for nesting and foraging. They are relatively flexible in their habitat choice and can be found in various parts of North Carolina, particularly in areas where forest lands dominate.

In North Carolina, you can observe these magnificent birds in counties such as Buncombe, Madison, and Henderson, part of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. These areas are known for their extensive woodlands, providing an excellent habitat for Pileated Woodpeckers. 

In the coastal regions, counties such as Brunswick and New Hanover also report consistent sightings, thanks to the combination of mature woods and marsh habitats found there. Keep an eye out for the Pileated Woodpecker’s distinctive red crest in the mountains or by the coast.


The Pileated Woodpecker’s diet in North Carolina primarily comprises ants and wood-boring insects, which they deftly extract from the trunks of dead trees using their substantial bills. They also enjoy a variety of berries and fruits native to the state. 

During autumn, they’re particularly fond of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), a fruit tree native to the eastern United States. They sometimes venture closer to human habitations and can be seen pecking at suet feeders. 

Interestingly, Pileated Woodpeckers have also been observed eating invasive species, such as the Gypsy Moth caterpillars, playing an essential role in controlling these destructive pests.

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Woodpeckers in NC

red bellied woodpecker near its hole (do woodpeckers peck at night?)


Easily recognized by their red cap, the Red-bellied Woodpecker has a pale reddish tinge on its belly. You will find them across North Carolina in various habitats, from forests to residential areas. They feed on insects, seeds, and fruits.


You’ll often come across Red-Bellied Woodpeckers in various wooded areas in North Carolina. They prefer habitats like swamps, pine forests, and hardwood hammocks. Interestingly, these woodpeckers can also make their homes in your backyard, as long as trees are around to create nesting cavities.


Red-bellied woodpeckers are pretty versatile when it comes to their diet. They’re also open about visiting bird feeders, allowing you to witness their unique feeding habits up close. Their meals mainly consist of:

  • Insects like ants, beetles, and termites.
  • Fruits and berries.
  • Tree nuts and seeds.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker in north carolina


The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a rare species and is listed as endangered. You can identify them by the slight red streak on the male’s cheek. They inhabit mature pine forests in North Carolina and feed on insects, primarily focusing on tree-boring beetles.


Red-cockaded woodpeckers thrive in mature, open, longleaf pine forests in North Carolina. These woodpeckers heavily rely on these trees for food, nesting, and protection.

These birds play a crucial role in the ecosystem as a keystone species, contributing to their habitat’s overall health and balance. Their nesting behavior involves creating cavities in living trees, which benefits them and provides homes for other species.


As expected, the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker’s diet primarily consists of insects that inhabit the bark of the longleaf pines. Additionally, they occasionally indulge in spiders and centipedes. 

These resourceful birds use their pointed beaks to pick and probe into the bark crevices to find their food, exposing hidden insects. This foraging technique ensures their sustenance and helps regulate the insect population in their habitat. Some of their preferred prey include:

  • Beetles
  • Ants
  • Bark lice
  • Wood-boring insects

Red-headed Woodpecker

red headed woodpecker sitting on a log


The Red-headed Woodpecker is a striking species with a completely red head and a contrasting black and white plumage body. You’ll usually see the species in open woodlands, farmlands, orchards, and suburban areas with dead trees. 


In North Carolina, you’ll see these woodpeckers in the Piedmont region, including the Eno River State Park and the North Carolina Botanical Garden. They are also prevalent in the coastal plains and less so in the state’s mountainous areas. Their diverse diet encompasses insects, seeds, fruits, and even small rodents.


The Red-headed Woodpecker has an incredibly diverse diet beyond the usual insect fare associated with woodpeckers. These birds are omnivores, feeding on various food sources according to season and availability. 

Insects such as beetles, cicadas, and grasshoppers form a substantial part of their diet during the warmer months. In addition, they’re known to eat spiders, earthworms, and occasionally small rodents and bird eggs.

However, their appetite isn’t limited to animal matter. Red-headed Woodpeckers feast on fruits and berries, particularly in the fall, turning to apples, grapes, wild cherries, mulberries, and blackberries. They also eat nuts and seeds, especially acorns, beechnuts, sunflower seeds, and corn.

Interestingly, these woodpeckers are also proficient at catching insects in flight and are known to store food in tree cavities for later consumption, a behavior not commonly observed in other woodpecker species. 

The Red-headed Woodpecker’s dietary habits contribute significantly to its role in maintaining the ecosystem balance, as they’re instrumental in controlling pests and dispersing seeds.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sap sucker does migrate south for the winter


The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is easy to spot with distinctive black and white plumage and a hint of yellow on the belly. You may observe their presence in woodlands and orchards in North Carolina. As their name suggests, they feed on tree sap insects and fruits.

As you explore North Carolina’s diverse habitats, watch for these fascinating woodpecker species, each with unique characteristics and adaptations.


In North Carolina, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are typically found in various forested habitats, particularly favoring mixed woodlands with coniferous and deciduous trees. Highly adaptable, these birds can thrive in both young and mature forests. 

Notably, they are also common in orchards and suburban areas with ample tree cover. These woodpeckers are especially drawn to sites with tree species that produce a high volume of sap, such as birches and maples. 

They are migratory birds and can be seen in the region mainly in the cooler months, providing an excellent opportunity for bird-watching enthusiasts.


The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker’s diet is quite interesting, as this bird has a taste for tree sap, which gives it its distinctive name. They use their sharp beaks to drill small holes in the tree bark and lap up the leaking liquid and any trapped insects with their specialized, brush-tipped tongues. 

In North Carolina, these birds find a variety of trees that satisfy their sap craving, including birch, hickory, and maple trees. They are also known to feed on the sap of fruit trees in orchards. However, their diet is not limited to sap and insects alone. 

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers also consume a fair amount of fruits and berries. In North Carolina, you can observe them feasting on the fruits of dogwood, serviceberry trees, wild cherries, and mulberries. During colder months, when trees are not producing as much sap, they might also feed on the seeds of pine and spruce trees. 

Interestingly, these woodpeckers also eat ants, beetles, and other small insects that they find in tree bark. This varied diet makes Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers a unique part of North Carolina’s ecosystem.

Diet and Hunting Techniques

Woodpeckers in NC have a diverse diet that consists of insects, seeds, nuts, and berries. As a resident of this region, you may have observed them probing tree bark for insects or visiting your bird feeder for a supplementary meal.

One of the primary foraging techniques used by woodpeckers is drumming. This percussive method allows them to locate and extract insects from the crevices of tree trunks or branches. Employing their solid beaks and long, barbed tongues, they effortlessly remove insects such as ants, beetles, and larvae.

In addition to hunting insects, woodpeckers capitalize on the abundance of seeds and nuts available in their environment. They are particularly fond of acorns, beech nuts, and sunflower seeds. Some woodpecker species, like the Red-headed Woodpecker, store surplus food in tree cavities for later consumption.

Occasionally, you might witness woodpeckers feasting on fruits and berries to supplement their diet. This is especially common during periods when their preferred insect prey is scarce. Species such as the Downy Woodpecker enjoy natural treats like wild blackberries.

While woodpeckers in North Carolina have honed various hunting techniques to adapt to an ever-changing environment, they remain symbolic ambassadors of nature. Their ability to keep harmful insect populations in check and contribute to a healthy ecosystem makes them an invaluable part of your local flora and fauna.

Woodpeckers and the Ecosystem

In this section, we will discuss the essential roles woodpeckers play in the ecosystem of North Carolina, specifically focusing on their role in pest control and their influence on local biodiversity.

Role in Pest Control

Woodpeckers are known for their remarkable ability to control pests, helping maintain a healthy garden and forest ecosystem. Pecking into tree trunks and branches, they dig out various insects and larvae, including beetles, ants, and termites. In fact, woodpeckers consume thousands of insects daily, significantly reducing the number of pests in the environment.

Not only do they keep pest populations in check, but they also prevent the spread of tree diseases caused by these insects. For example, by removing the larvae of wood-boring beetles, woodpeckers help prevent the transmission of harmful fungi.

Influence on Local Biodiversity

Woodpeckers contribute to the biodiversity of North Carolina by creating nesting cavities for themselves and other species. As they excavate holes in trees, they provide valuable nesting sites for species such as:

  • Bluebirds
  • Owls
  • Nuthatches
  • Swallows

These cavities are essential for the survival and reproduction of many cavity-nesting species. Therefore, by creating new homes for these creatures, woodpeckers foster the growth of diverse communities within the ecosystem.

Moreover, woodpeckers play a role in seed dispersal, particularly for tree species with hard nuts, such as beech, hazelnut, and oak. When foraging for food, they crack open these nuts using their strong beaks and inadvertently scatter seeds across the forest floor. This process assists in the regeneration of these important tree species.

In summary, woodpeckers provide critical ecosystem services by controlling pest populations, promoting local biodiversity, and aiding seed dispersal.

Threats and Conservation Efforts

As a concerned North Carolinian, you might wonder about the threats that Woodpeckers in the region face. One primary threat they encounter is habitat loss due to deforestation and urbanization.

Loss of habitats results in a decline in suitable nesting sites, impacting their breeding success and overall population. Moreover, pesticides and other toxins used in agriculture and landscape management can contaminate their food sources, consequently affecting their health.

Various conservation efforts are underway to protect Woodpeckers in North Carolina. State and federal organizations, like the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, are working to preserve and restore these birds’ natural habitats.

These initiatives include:

  • Establishing and maintaining protected areas for nesting and foraging
  • Promoting sustainable forestry practices to minimize negative impacts on Woodpeckers’ habitat
  • Collaborating with landowners and local communities for habitat preservation and education initiatives

Citizen engagement also plays a vital role in Woodpecker conservation. There are several ways you can contribute:

  • Participate in bird-watching or monitoring programs, such as Project FeederWatch, which helps gather valuable data to inform conservation strategies.
  • Plant native trees and plants in your yard to provide diverse food sources and nesting habitats for Woodpeckers
  • Use eco-friendly alternatives to pesticides and toxins that can harm these birds and other wildlife species.

By working together and supporting conservational initiatives, you can help ensure the continued presence of Woodpeckers in North Carolina for future generations to appreciate.

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