Red marks the spot — and Happy Holidays to you all!

top – mature and immature red-headed woodpeckers; bottom – male and female yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

As 2021 draws to a close and many of us enjoy a few free days, we may take outdoor walks, alone or in the company of others. An activity that can help us attend more to nature as we go along is to see how many of our area’s woodpeckers we can spot on a walk. Because all the adult male and some female woodpeckers have red color on or near their heads, our quest can focus on trying to spot these flashes of red among the leaves or on tree branches.

Our area has seven common woodpecker species: the pileated woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-breasted sapsucker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker and the Northern flicker. All of them live here year-round, but the numbers of sapsuckers and flickers increase greatly in winter as migrants from up North join them here.

(There is also an eighth species in our state: the red-cockaded woodpecker. This endangered species lives only in Eastern NC.)

Some of the immature birds and adult females are colored differently from the mature males, but they also can be quite beautiful, like the red-headed woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers seen above. Male and female red-heads look the same but the immature birds are black and white. Male sapsuckers have a red throat. If you ever see many rows of small holes in tree trunks, it’s a clue that sapsuckers have been there. They pierce the bark so that sap leaks out, which they and many other species enjoy drinking during the winter months.

Top – male (left) and female downy woodpeckers; bottom – downy (left) and hairy woodpeckers. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

Two species look remarkably alike: the downy and hairy woodpeckers. When they flit by quickly, even experienced birders may be unsure which ones they have seen since the differences are subtle. The males of both species have red patches on the back of their heads, while the females are only black and white. The hairy woodpeckers are larger and have larger beaks; in addition, they lack black spots on their tail feathers.

Our largest woodpeckers are the pileated woodpeckers. The males and females look quite similar except the males have a red stripe on their cheeks. The most unusual of our woodpeckers are the gorgeous Northern flickers. The males have a red patch on the back of their heads. What makes these woodpeckers special is that they are the only woodpecker species here that often feed on the ground, digging up insects.

top – male and female pileated woodpeckers and male and female Northern flickers; bottom – female (left) and male and immature red-bellied woodpeckers. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

The male red-bellied woodpeckers have red necks and heads, while the females only have red necks. Both have very light coloring on their bellies.

If you choose to do a woodpecker survey on a walk, you could aim to find as many species as possible or try to see whether you can find both males and females of a species. An informative synopsis of information about these birds can be found at

My hope for you is that you enjoy some time in nature as year’s end nears. I wish you happy holidays and all the best for the New Year and in 2022!

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, leads a nature-themed book club, and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at

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