Woodpeckers of Virginia

Woodpeckers of Virginia

Woodpeckers are some of the most fascinating and unique birds found in Virginia. With their brightly colored feathers, chisel-like bills, and exceptional drumming skills, they are truly a sight to behold. Virginia is home to eight different species of woodpeckers, each with its own distinctive features and behaviors.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the woodpeckers that call Virginia home. You’ll learn about their physical characteristics, habitat preferences, feeding habits, and breeding behaviors. You’ll also discover tips and tricks for identifying these birds in the field, as well as the best places to spot them.

Whether you’re an experienced birder or a novice looking to learn more about these fascinating creatures, this guide will help you deepen your understanding and appreciation of Virginia’s woodpeckers.

1. Red-Headed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus
  • Life span: 8 – 10 years
  • Size: 19 to 25 cm (7.5 to 9.8 in)
  • Weight: 56 to 97 g (2.0 to 3.4 oz)
  • Wingspan: 35 to 43 cm (14 to 17 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is an impressive bird that is easy to recognize due to its vibrant, red head and neck. With a black body and wings, along with white underparts and a white patch at the base of its tail, this medium-sized woodpecker is a frequent sight in Virginia.

It feeds on the state’s ample insect and invertebrate populations, as well as nuts and fruits. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is also renowned for its aerial agility, often seen foraging while hanging upside down.

A Red-Headed Woodpecker sitting on a tree trunk in the fall

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is an intriguing bird that is native to Virginia and fiercely territorial. During breeding season in May, the male attracts potential mates by rapidly drumming on dead trees.

After forming a pair, the birds cooperate in carving out cavities in dead or dying trees to lay their eggs. The female is in charge of incubating the eggs while the male will provide her and the chicks with food.

The family remains together for a while after the young birds fledge, foraging and roosting together before gradually establishing their own territories.

Red-Headed Woodpeckers are not finicky eaters, and their diet primarily consists of insects, fruits, and nuts. They are, however, also opportunistic feeders, meaning they will take advantage of any available food sources, including pilfering eggs and nestlings from smaller bird species when times are tough.

Despite being labeled “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the Red-Headed Woodpecker population has decreased significantly over the past century due to habitat loss and the removal of dead trees for nesting.

To support these birds, it is common to create artificial nest cavities and bird feeders. Preserving dead trees and establishing new nesting sites are critical conservation measures for maintaining and potentially increasing the Red-Headed Woodpecker population.

2. Red-Bellied Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes carolinus
  • Life span: 10-12 years
  • Size: 22 to 26.cm (9 to 10 in)
  • Weight: 56 to 91 g (2 to 3.2 oz)
  • Wingspan: 35 to 43 cm (14 to 17 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is indigenous to Virginia and is commonly sighted there. It is easily recognizable due to its unique features, such as its Red head, neck, and underparts, as well as its black back, wings, and tail.

It also has a large white patch at the base of its tail and a white bar on its wings, which are visible during flight, further distinguishing it from other woodpeckers in the state. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s robust beak is notable, enabling it to forage on tree trunks, branches, and leaves for insects and other food sources.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker looking for a place to dig in the tree trunk

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a species that nests in cavities, constructing their nests in holes within trees. The male Red-Bellied Woodpecker excavates the cavity in a dead or decaying tree, and the female lines it with wood chips before the pair raises their young.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker displays territorial behavior, fiercely defending its nest cavity against other Woodpeckers, bird species, and other predators.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is omnivorous but feeds mostly on insects, including ants, bees, wasps, and beetles, as well as other invertebrates such as spiders and snails. It also feeds on nuts and fruits, including acorns, berries, and seeds from mature forests where it resides.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s sturdy beak enables it to create holes in tree bark, uncovering hidden insects and breaking open seeds and nuts.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a common and widely distributed species in Virginia and is classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. The species has a large population and is not currently facing any significant threat or risk of extinction.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has historically benefited from the clearing of forests for agriculture as this has created open woodlands and forest edges, which are ideal habitats for the species. Moreover, the species has shown adaptability to human-modified landscapes, such as suburban areas, and is frequently sighted in parks.

3. Pileated Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus
  • Life span: 6-10 years
  • Size: 16-19 inches
  • Weight: 10-12 oz
  • Wingspan: 26-30 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Pileated Woodpecker is a prominent and stately bird species that inhabits a broad range across North America. The bird’s appearance is easily distinguishable, featuring a black body with a white neck and wing stripe, and it is also notable for its loud and unique calls.

The Pileated Woodpecker is commonly observed in older and more mature forests, where it feeds on various insects such as wood-boring beetles and carpenter ants. Additionally, the bird is renowned for its distinctive drumming, which can be heard resonating through the woods of Virginia.

A Pileated Woodpecker browsing an old tree stump for food

The Pileated Woodpecker is a monogamous bird, mating with only one partner for life. They are fiercely territorial and defend their area with bold vocalizations and displays that deter other birds from entering their space.

These woodpeckers are known for their exceptional excavation skills, creating large, rectangular cavities in decaying trees to use as their homes for nesting, roosting, and food storage. While they primarily nest in cavities, they need a readily available supply of decaying trees to construct their homes, and they are adaptable and will utilize artificial nest boxes that meet their requirements.

The Pileated Woodpecker’s diet is omnivorous and consists of animals and plants. They will, however, mainly feed on insects, using their strong beaks and long tongues to excavate for wood-boring beetles, ants, and other insects in decaying trees.

The Pileated Woodpecker faced a decline in their range and population due to deforestation during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, due to reforestation efforts and the expansion of suburban and urban forests, the species has made a remarkable comeback. Today, the Pileated Woodpecker is labeled “Least Concern” by IUCN.

While habitat loss and degradation remain threats, conservation efforts focus on protecting and restoring their native habitats, as well as providing suitable nesting and foraging sites to ensure the survival of these forest kings.

4. Downy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides pubescens
  • Life span: 2-5 years
  • Size: 6-7 inches
  • Weight: 1 oz
  • Wingspan: 13 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Downy Woodpecker is a small bird commonly found in most of North America, including Virginia. The birds head has a unique pattern of black and white stripes and a short, chisel-like beak. Its black back, white underparts, and a white patch on the wings are mostly visible during flight.

The Downy Woodpecker plays an essential role in the forest ecosystem, regulating insect populations and spreading the seeds of trees and plants. Because of its energetic movements, many people find this particular bird extremely enjoyable to watch.

A Downy Woodpecker sitting on a log

The Downy Woodpecker is known for its ability to excavate nesting cavities. Both male and female birds are involved in the process and use their strong beaks to peck away at the wood until a suitable site is created. The nest cavity is typically lined with soft materials like wood chips.

This bird’s diet consists mainly of insects, such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which it locates by pecking at tree bark. It may also drink sap from trees and shrubs by creating holes in the bark and consuming the sap, as well as consuming fruits, nuts, and seeds from various plants like elderberry, palmetto, and pine cones.

The Downy Woodpecker population may have decreased in some regions due to habitat loss and degradation. However, it is still categorized as “Least Concern” by the IUCN.

To protect and preserve this species and its habitats, conservation measures are being implemented, including safeguarding and restoring vital habitats, managing and removing invasive species, and promoting sustainable forestry methods.

5. Hairy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides villosus
  • Life span: 5-10 years
  • Size: 7-10 inches
  • Weight: 1.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 16-20 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Hairy Woodpecker is an indigenous species in Virginia that has striking black and white feathers, a long chisel-like beak, and a unique personality. It can be found in various habitats, from the forests of Alaska to the suburbs of Mexico, and is known to frequent bird feeders.

This species is famous for its exceptional drumming on trees and its ability to extract insects from deep within tree trunks, making it a beloved bird among bird watchers and backyard birders alike.

The Hairy Woodpecker sitting in a tree

The Hairy Woodpecker is a bird that creates a nest inside a cavity, which can be in a tree or wooden structure. Both male and female woodpeckers take part in excavating the nest, using their beaks to remove wood until they find the ideal spot.

The nest is usually lined with soft materials, such as wood chips, and sometimes with man-made materials, such as cigarette filters, pieces of clothing, and foam.

The Hairy Woodpecker’s diet mainly consists of insects, including beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which it finds by pecking at tree bark and other wood surfaces. It also consumes sap from trees and shrubs and feeds on various fruits, nuts, and seeds.

Despite being prevalent in North America, including in Virginia, habitat loss and degradation have led to a reduction in numbers in some Hairy Woodpecker populations. Nevertheless, efforts are in place to conserve and protect this species and its habitats. As of now, the IUCN has classified the Hairy Woodpecker as “Least Concern.”

6. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Sphyrapicus varius
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches
  • Weight: 2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is a mid-sized woodpecker with black and white feathers and a notable yellow bill, which is the origin of its name. It is prevalent across North America, spanning from Alaska to Mexico, and can be typically found in deciduous forests, orchards, and parks.

One of its distinct behaviours is to create shallow holes in trees, allowing it to extract the sap and insects living beneath the bark, as shown in the picture.

A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and its shallow holes

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is a type of woodpecker with a distinctive yellow bill and bold black and white markings. They are cavity nesters, boring holes into trees or wooden structures to create their nests, which are lined with soft materials such as grasses, wood chips, and sometimes man-made items. Both male and female birds work together to dig the nest using their beaks.

This species primarily feeds on sap from trees and also eats insects, fruit, and occasionally small birds when other food resources are scarce.

They drill small holes in the bark of trees to access sap, which is an important part of their diet. Insects attracted to the sap also provide an additional source of food. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be found mostly in coniferous trees.

While the population of Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers is currently considered “Least Concern” by the IUCN, there have been declines in some regions due to habitat loss and degradation.

Conservation efforts have focused on preserving and protecting their habitat, particularly mature forested areas with a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. These efforts have helped to maintain stable populations in many areas, though local declines have been reported in regions with extensive deforestation.

7. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides borealis
  • Life span: 10-12 years
  • Size: 7-9 inches
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • Wingspan: 12-15 inches
  • Status: Endangered

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is a Virginia native, distinguished by its medium-sized body, black and white feathers, and striking red cap. This species is mostly confined to pine forests and is considered a keystone species, playing a crucial role in maintaining the health of the forest ecosystem.

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker removes excess insects that could harm the trees, and it is a highly social bird, forming family groups that collaborate to create nesting cavities in live pine trees.

A Red-Cockaded Woodpecker looking for insects between the cracks of the tree

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is known for its cooperative breeding behavior, wherein several birds collaborate to raise their offspring. These groups typically include a breeding pair and one or more helpers, often previous offspring.

The Woodpecker creates its own nests in live pine trees, with the cavities located in older pine trees surrounded by a thick layer of resin. This resin serves as a defense against predators and helps to repel ants, which are common in pine forests.

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker primarily feeds on insects and their larvae, which they locate by probing into the bark of pine trees.

They have adapted to feed on bark beetles, a significant pest of pine forests, as well as other arthropods like spiders and millipedes. When insect populations are scarce, they also consume some plant material, such as pine seeds and berries.

The population of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers has significantly declined due to extensive deforestation, fragmentation, and logging efforts, making them an “Endangered” species according to IUCN. Conservation efforts are now underway to protect and restore the species and its habitat, as it is considered a priority for conservation.

8. Northern Flicker

  • Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches
  • Weight: 2.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Status: Least concern

The Northern Flicker, a species of large woodpecker, is easily recognizable by its unique appearance. It can be found throughout much of North America, ranging from Alaska to Mexico, and is commonly observed in various habitats, such as forests, parks, and suburban areas.

The bird’s striking appearance is marked by its boldly-patterned underparts, brownish-red back and wings, and a black bib and red nape patch. The Northern Flicker has a long, straight bill and is known for being an adaptable bird, feeding on a variety of food sources, including insects, seeds, and fruits.

Its energetic and active behavior and drumming, calls, and displays make it a popular bird among bird watchers.

A Northern Flicker sitting on a moss-covered branch

The Northern Flicker is known for its unique nesting behavior, where it excavates cavities in trees or other substrates. This adaptable species typically chooses dead or dying trees for their homes, but will also use man-made structures such as utility poles or fence posts if necessary.

In addition to their excavation skills, Northern Flickers are also known for drumming their beaks against hard surfaces to create rhythmic sounds used for communication and attracting mates.

Their diet is varied and includes both plant and animal material. They hunt for insects like ants, beetles, caterpillars, and termites on the ground and in trees, but also consume fruits, berries, and nuts from various trees. During the winter when insects are scarce, they extract sap from trees using their long tongues.

The Northern Flicker, classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, is a plentiful species with a population estimated to range between 10 and 20 million individuals and is widely distributed in North America.

Although habitat loss due to deforestation and urban development has impacted certain subspecies of the Northern Flicker, they have adapted well to human-modified landscapes and even expanded their range into urban areas.

Conservation efforts to preserve the Northern Flicker are focused on preserving and restoring native habitats, as well as providing suitable nesting and foraging sites. This will ensure the survival of this incredible bird, which has captivated many with its unique behaviors and striking appearance.

Where to look for Woodpeckers in Virginia

Virginia is home to a diverse range of woodpecker species, making it an excellent destination for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts. There are several locations throughout the state where visitors can find these beautiful birds, with a little patience and a keen eye.

One of the best ways to find woodpeckers in Virginia is to explore parks, forests, and nature reserves that have a mix of mature trees and open spaces. This provides the perfect habitat for these birds to forage for food and build their nests.

One excellent area to spot woodpeckers in Virginia is the Shenandoah National Park. The park boasts over 200 species of birds, including several woodpecker species such as the Pileated Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. The Big Meadows area and Hawksbill Mountain are great places to look for these birds.

Another great location is the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The swamp is home to a range of woodpecker species, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Visitors can explore the trails and boardwalks and hope to observe these birds in their natural habitat.

The Mason Neck State Park is another excellent location for bird watching. Visitors can take a hike on the Gunston Loop Trail, which passes through mature forests and wetlands, and keep an eye out for the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Finally, the James River Park System in Richmond is a great urban location for bird watchers. This park is home to the Red-headed Woodpecker, which is not commonly found in other areas of the state. Visitors can explore the trails and picnic areas along the river to spot this beautiful bird.


The state of Virginia is home to a wide variety of woodpecker species, each with its own unique habitat preferences and behavior. Woodpeckers have been relatively unaffected by climate-related disruptions, unlike many other bird groups.

However, deforestation and human activities such as urbanization and agriculture have taken a toll on the population of some woodpecker species in Virginia.

Fortunately, there has been a growing awareness of this issue, and efforts are being made to conserve and protect the woodpeckers’ habitats. As a result, there is hope that their populations will rebound and thrive once again.

Seeing or even just hearing woodpeckers is a great experience when walking in the woods, as it adds to the feeling of being with nature, and something I enjoy greatly about these birds.

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