If you live in or close to forest areas in the eastern United States of America or southeast Canada, feed the birds in your yard, or spend time walking in the woods, you are probably quite familiar with the Red-bellied Woodpecker. These are not shy woodpeckers, and they are not particularly picky when it comes to habitat preferences, any tree will do! Red-bellied Woodpeckers are of the genus Melanerpes, of which there are 23 other species, spread across the Americas from the south of Canada to Argentina, mostly in The Caribbean and Central America.
These are typically small or medium-sized woodpeckers, with bold and often dark plumage. The Latin word Melanerpes translates as ‘black creeper’ referring to the dark coloration, and the birds’ habit of climbing up tree trunks and branches.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Genus: Melanerpes
- Species: Melanerpes carolinus
How to Identify a Red-bellied Woodpecker
Through the vast majority of their range, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are distinctive and easily recognizable birds, with a very different appearance from other woodpecker species. The upper parts are completely and boldly barred black and white, and this contrasts with a pale gray head and underside. The male has a bright red crown and back of the head and neck, on the female only the back of the head and neck is red, and the crown is the same gray as the head and underside.
The red belly which gives these birds their name is rather discreet, and in all honestly, I think it is a strange plumage feature to choose for the name. It is nothing more than a subtle pink-red wash in the belly, which is mostly hidden when the bird is vertical on a tree trunk, their usual pose. In flight, it is possible to see the white rump and a small white patch on the upper wing at the base of the primaries. The tail is black, with black and white barred outermost, and inner tail feathers.
Juveniles look similar to adults, but lack any red on the head, and have a duller, less contrasting barred pattern on the back. After just a few months of life, the red will start to appear on the head.
In the far southwest of their range, in Texas and Oklahoma, there is some overlap with the similar Golden-fronted Woodpecker. These birds get their name from the yellow-orange (gold) patch on the forehead, at the base of the bill. They also have a yellow-orange back of the head and neck, and males have a red patch on the top of the head.
Where Do Red-bellied Woodpeckers Live: Habitat
Red-bellied Woodpeckers will happily live in any type of forest habitat in a broad range of southeast North America from The Great Lakes south to The Gulf of Mexico, and from the eastern seaboard west to The Great Plains. They prefer large and dense broadleaved forests but will occur in smaller forest fragments and pine forests. They can even be found in suburban areas, provided big, mature trees are present and usually require some standing dead trees for optimal foraging opportunities. They frequently visit gardens and yards close to forested areas.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Migration
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are considered to be a largely sedentary species, spending the whole year in the same location. Their broad diet allows them to find suitable food all through the year without needing to travel far as food availability changes with the seasons. Some of the birds in the northernmost part of their range will undertake short movements further south though, I’ve seen a few migrating through watch points in southern Canada each fall, and throughout their range, they will move if extreme weather forces them to.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are as uncomplicated about their food requirements as they are about habitat; they have a very broad diet that adapts to supply. They spend most of their time foraging on tree trunks and branches, searching for small invertebrates on living and dead trees. As well as picking insects from tiny hiding places on rough bark, they will also peck away at wood to expose grubs and larvae. Their long and pointed tongue, with a barbed tip, is perfect for extracting burrowing critters.
They will also feed on fruits, seeds, berries, and nuts, preferably found hanging on the tree, but they will drop to the ground to feed on fallen items.
Like many other woodpeckers, they are opportunistic and will take whatever they come across whilst feeding, even including small lizards and baby birds and eggs taken from nests.
During times of successful foraging and food abundance, they will store their harvest in preparation for leaner times. This usually involves hiding items, particularly seeds and nuts, in cracks and crevices in a tree trunk for retrieval at a later date. It is important to hide them well to reduce the chances of other foragers stumbling across the cache.
When visiting feeding stations, Red-bellied Woodpeckers seem to show a preference for suet feeders, but they will also take peanuts and seeds, and will also feed on soft fruits that are left out.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Breeding and Nesting
Red-bellied Woodpeckers reach breeding maturity after their first winter, at less than a year of age. Courtship can start as early as January or February in the south, with the male drumming to declare his territory and also to attract a mate. Drumming, tapping, and loud calling are not restricted to courtship behavior and often continue throughout the year.
After forming a pair bond, the male selects a nest site on a dead tree and begins to excavate a cavity. If the female is impressed by the nest site and choice of the location, she will help to complete the excavation; this process generally takes a week or two. Usually, four eggs are laid, though it can be as few as two or as many as six, and both sexes incubate them for a total of twelve days. Both parents continue to play a role in brooding the chicks and bringing them food, small or broken-up insects at first, followed by larger insects and fruits.
After the first two weeks of care in the nest, the chicks are big and strong enough to climb to the entrance of the cavity, and they will often reach noisily and hungrily out of the nest hole to receive food. After three to four weeks, the chicks will leave the nest and will continue to be fed by the adults for around another month before reaching independence. In the south, the parents may attempt a second brood before the onset of the fall.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Population
It is estimated that the global population of Red-bellied Woodpeckers is around 16 million birds, all of them in the United States of America and Canada.
Are Red-bellied Woodpeckers Endangered?
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are classified by IUCN as being of ‘least concern.’ This is due to their large population size, which is increasing significantly, a rare trend amongst most wild birds these days. This increase is due to their adapting to the continuing growth in popularity of garden bird feeding and their ability to make use of forests that have suffered from tree mortality after flooding events and disease.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Predators
Being relatively large, conspicuous, and slow-flying, woodpeckers are frequently hunted by woodland birds of prey, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks being the most likely predators. The eggs and young are always vulnerable, for any bird species, even for woodpeckers nesting hidden deep inside a cavity.
Other woodpeckers will search for them here, particularly the large Pileated Woodpecker, and various snake species will also seek out and raid nesting cavities. House cats will also attack woodpeckers, particularly at bird feeders, and this is something important to consider when choosing where to site your feeders.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Lifespan
The oldest known Red-bellied Woodpeckers reached 12 years of age
Answer: Red-bellied Woodpeckers do not need much persuasion to visit your property if you live within their range. Allowing native plants to grow, or even planting more, will help provide a range of natural food for them; Fruit and nut-producing trees will be the most beneficial if you have the space, but flowers and bushes will also provide plenty of feeding opportunities for woodpeckers and plenty of other wild species.
Many people underestimate the importance of dead wood and will clear away fallen branches and dead tree limbs. These are the very best habitat for woodpeckers, as they love to feed on the invertebrates that eat dead wood. If you want to make your property a haven for wild birds, leaving dead wood, either standing or already fallen on the ground, is extremely valuable.
Of course, putting out additional food will always attract more birds, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers will happily come to feeders. They are particularly fond of suet but will also feed on fruit, nuts, and seeds
You can find more information on increasing the attractiveness of your property to birds by exploring more of our pages:
• Bird Baths
• Bird Feeders
• Bird Seed
• Wild Birds
Remember that feeding wild birds does come with some responsibility; feeders can be a transmission point for avian diseases that birds wouldn’t normally be exposed to. In nature, you would never get so many individuals feeding repeatedly in one spot. If you do feed the birds, it is critical that you wash the feeders regularly, or you could be causing our feathered friends more harm than good, and I’m sure you want to see good numbers of them returning to feed for many years to come.
Answer: Yes, they do, but it’s a subtle plumage feature. The red belly is just a dull pink wash on the lowest part of the underside, so it is actually quite difficult to see and certainly won’t be your first identification pointer.
Answer: Red-bellied Woodpeckers do drum, but not as loudly and as frequently as other woodpeckers. Their rolling querr querr querr call is a more frequent and distinctive vocalization and is a common sound in any woodland habitat in the southeast.
Answer: No, the Red-headed Woodpecker is a different species. Red-bellied Woodpeckers do have a bold red patch on the top and back of their heads, but adult Red-headed Woodpeckers have a completely red head, which is very obvious. If you see a Red-headed Woodpecker well, you should not get confused between the two species; they also have a very bold pattern of a solid black back contrasting with clean white outer wings.
While many people get understandably confused when seeing their first Red-bellied Woodpecker, wondering why they can’t see a red belly, this is a distinctive bird that you will soon be able to recognize. Learning their call and drumming sounds will help you find these birds in your local wooded areas if you live in the east. If you do have them nearby, and you feed the birds on your property, you can expect a visit from these boldly plumaged and boldly behaved woodpeckers.
You can read more about other species of woodpeckers in our Types of Woodpeckers Guide.
- Miller, K. E., D. L. Leonard Jr., C. E. Shackelford, R. E. Brown, and R. N. Conner (2020). Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- Frei, B., K. G. Smith, J. H. Withgott, P. G. Rodewald, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2020). Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- Breitwisch, R.J. (1977). The ecology and behavior of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, Centurus carolinus (Linnaeus) (Aves: Picidae), in south Florida (M.Sc. thesis). University of Miami.
- BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Melanerpes carolinus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 20/10/2022
- Skeate, S. T. (1987). Interactions between birds and fruits in a northern Florida hammock community. Ecology 68:297-309
- McPeek, G. A. and E. B. Pitcher. (1991). “Red-bellied Woodpecker.” In The atlas of breeding birds of Michigan., edited by R. Brewer, G. A. McPeek and Jr R. J. Adams, 262-263. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.
- Kilham, L. (1961c). Reproductive behavior of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Wilson Bulletin 73:237-254.
- Kilham, L. (September 1963). “Food Storing of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers” (PDF). The Wilson Bulletin. 75: 227–234. JSTOR 4159177
- Partners in Flight, Avian Conservation Assessment Database Scores
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