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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus


Despite its name, the belly of this woodpecker is primarily light cream in color, with the red making up a very small patch that is often barely visible. Males do, however, have very bright red head caps; the red on females is restricted to the nape of the neck. Both sexes can be distinguished from similar species by the black and white "zebra stripes" on their backs, as well as by their black beaks. Juvenile coloration is similar to that of adults, except for a horn-colored bill and lack of red on the head. Unlike most other bird species, there is no seasonal variation in color.

male red-bellied woodpecker

female red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker averages 9 to 11 inches in length, with a wingspan of 13 to 17 inches. It weighs 2 to 3 ounces.

Distribution and Habitat

The red-bellied woodpecker is found throughout the eastern half of the United States, from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It inhabits a variety of forested habitats, including oak-hickory forest, pine-hardwood forest, maple and tulip-poplar stands, pine flatwoods, and swampy woodlands, but is most common in mature hardwood forests. It can also be found in suburban backyards and large urban parks, and will take advantage of bird feeders.


Although tree-boring insects make up a large part of the red-bellied woodpecker's diet, it will also take other arboreal arthropods, as well as small lizards, tree frogs, nestlings, and bird eggs. It also feeds on a wide variety of fruits, nuts, seeds, and berries, as well as tree sap.

Gleaning, probing, excavating, pecking, bark scaling, and hawking are all methods used by red-bellied woodpeckers to forage for food. Once captured, small food is consumed by swallowing it whole. Large prey is thrashed against a tree and pecked at. The tongue is long, cylindrical, pointed, sticky, and has a spear-like tip, making it well adapted for excavating prey from cracks.

Red-bellied woodpeckers forage primarily on the trunks and limbs of trees and snags. Studies have shown that males and females forage differently. Males forage primarily on trunks, while females forage primarily on tree limbs. Females also forage higher on the trees than males.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are known to store extra food for later consumption. Food items such as nuts, acorns, corn, fruits, seeds and insects are stored deep in pre-existing cracks and crevices of trees or posts.


Breeding pairs form from early winter into late spring. Males attract females with a combination of tree tapping, "kwirr" calls, and drumming. Although red-bellied woodpeckers appear to be monogamous during the breeding season, breeding pairs do not appear to stay together for more than one season.

The process of selecting the nest site is highly ritualized in this species, and involves much mutual tapping, in which one member of the pair taps softly on the wood from inside a cavity, and the other taps back from the outside. Nests are usually excavated in dead trees or the dead limbs of live trees. Both male and female excavate the nest cavity, which is lined with wood chips and is about a foot deep.

When the nest is complete, the female lays about four smooth, oval, glossy white eggs at one-day intervals. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 12 days.

Chicks are born naked and with their eyes closes. The eyes begin to open at about six days, and are fully open by about day 15. Feathers begin appearing at about fay 10, and the chick will be fully feathered by about day 21. The chicks are fed by both parents until they leave the nest, at about 27 days. They will follow their parents for another 10 weeks or so, and then drive their parents away. The young birds are probably able to breed the next spring. While red-bellied woodpeckers occasionally raise two broods per season, most pairs are only able to raise one brood per season

The oldest known wild red-bellied woodpecker was just over 12 years when it died.

Other Habits and Behaviors

Red-bellied woodpeckers are most active during the daytime.

Although the red-bellied woodpecker is a non-migratory species, some populations in the far northern parts of its range may move to warmer areas during severe winters.

Walking, climbing and hopping are all forms of locomotion used by red-bellied woodpeckers. An interesting form of locomotion used by woodpeckers is called "hitching," hopping upward along a vertical surface such as a tree trunk interspersed with pauses to look for food.

Red-bellied woodpeckers have been observed playing when predators are not around. They may fly spontaneously and dodge among trees and shrubs as if evading a predator.

Within-gender conflicts are common and usually involve a chase and collisions in mid-air. Red-bellied woodpeckers exhibit many threat displays, for example, raising their feathers on their neck and the crown of their head and spreading their wings and tail to appear larger to the threatening individual. In the presence of predators red-bellied woodpeckers sound alarm calls and retreat to nearby trees or shrubs.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are very vocal, especially during breeding season. The most common call is a "chuck-chuck-chuck," descending in pitch, and there is also a loud, often repeated "churrrr."

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Piciformes
family Picidae
genus & species Melanerpes carolinus

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This page was last updated on March 22, 2018.