Birding by Ear, Part I: Woodpeckers

Everyone recognizes the sound of a woodpecker. Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat.

Their drumming is one of the most recognizable non-vocal sounds a bird makes. But many woodpeckers have vocalizations that can help you find them, long before they start to drum.

Around Seagroves Pond you can encounter six different species of woodpeckers (family Picidae). Four have “woodpecker” in their names: Red-bellied Woodpeckers (our most common), Downy Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, and Pileated Woodpeckers (“Good God” birds, which is just about what you say whenever you see one). We have two other woodpeckers that have non-woodpecker names: Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers. These all have distinctive vocalizations, although I have to say, I’ve never heard a Downy Woodpecker do anything other than drum, and Red-headed Woodpeckers are rather rare around the pond.

Rather than try to describe the sounds, I’ve found recordings of the woodpeckers “in action.” The sounds I’m using are from a great site called Xeno-Canto ( I owe a debt of thanks to them and their recordists for making this library available.

I’m presenting the sounds from the “chattiest” bird to the least.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers

If you’ve walked around Seagroves Pond, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker without knowing it. They have a number of different vocalizations that are known among birders as “kwirr,” “che,” and “wicka.”

The “kwirr” is what I listen for every morning.

Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirr” call (Recordist: William Whitehead)

In addition to the “kwirr”, another common sound you’ll here is the “che”.

Red-bellied Woodpecker “che” (Recordist: Sue Riffe)

When they get excited they may give a “wicka” call. This is a short recording, but it gets the idea across. As you’ll see, “wicka” calls seem to be the one common “note” in many woodpecker calls.

Red-bellied Woodpecker “wicka” call (Recordist: Paul Marvin)

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers can be found across much of the United States. The only difference you’ll find is that in the eastern part of the US, the feathers under their wings and tails are yellow; in the western US, the feathers are red.

For me, the “wik-wik-wik” call (another “wicka”) of the Flicker brings back quiet days in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.

Northern Flicker “wik-wik-wik” (Recordists: Peter Ward and Ken Hall)

In addition to the “wik-wik-wik” you might hear the “peah” during mating season.

Northern Flicker “peah” call (Recordists: Peter Ward and Ken Hall)

Pileated Woodpecker

The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the larger birds you’ll see at Seagroves Pond. With its crow size, bright red crest (both sexes), and the white flashes on its wing tips, it’s hard to mistake for anything else.

Its call, on the other hand, sounds like a Flicker on steroids. More than once, I’ve had to look, thinking I was hearing a very noisy Flicker, only to say (as one does) “Good God…”

Pileated Woodpecker (Recordist: Russ Wigh)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This is an odd one. If you’re not listening carefully, you might think it’s a Red-shouldered Hawk in the distance. (Or, at least, I did when I first started to hear it.) However, you’ll quickly realize the call is coming from near-by. The good thing is: once you’ve heard it, you’ll always recognize it.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are winter residents. They head up to Canada in the summer.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Recordist: Russ Gallardy)

Red-headed Woodpecker

While many see the red crown and nape on a Red-bellied Woodpecker and call it a “Red-headed Woodpecker,” the actual Red-headed Woodpecker has an all-red head and distinctive black and white markings. I have only seen one around Seagroves Pond in recent years. This image is from our back yard more than 10 years ago, when they were frequent visitors. As more houses were built—and more habitat destroyed—they have retreated to thicker, quieter woods.

Some of their sounds are similar to that of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. This is an “efficient” recording, in that you can hear the Red-Headed Woodpecker’s “churr” and “wicka” calls, in addition to its distinctive, rapid drumming.

Red-headed Woodpecker “churr” and “wicka” (Recordist: Andrew Spencer)

Downy Woodpecker

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Downy Woodpecker—our smallest Woodpecker—also seems to be the quietest of the bunch. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard one. However, they are busy and noisy drummers.

Their sounds include a “whinny” call and a short “pik.”

The “whinny” call of the Downy always speeds up toward the end.

Downy Woodpecker “Whinny” (Recordist: Thomas Magarian)

This is the Downy’s “pik” call. I’ve probably heard this many times and not realized what it was.

Downy Woodpecker “Pik” (Recordist: Christopher McPherson)

These are the six woodpeckers I have seen around Seagroves Pond. There is another variety you might encounter—the Hairy Woodpecker—which is similar to the Downy, but slightly larger. If I ever see (and identify) one, I’ll let you know.

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