Red-bellied Woodpeckers aren’t very well named. These birds might have bright red markings on their heads, but their bellies are mostly pale tan. A common Woodpecker in a variety of habitats, these birds often visit suet feeders in backyards, and their churring calls and rhythmic drumming are typical sounds of the American Southeast.
Do you know the difference between male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers?
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers differ from males by having a gray (not red) crown. They are slightly smaller than the males but otherwise very similar. Females also have less red on their bellies, usually visible as a small, indistinct reddish patch.
There are also some fascinating differences in their foraging and nesting behaviors, with females searching for foods in differing micro-habitats and spending different times in the nest. These birds are common in suburban areas and are often happy to use artificial nest boxes, so you could even observe these differences in your own backyard.
There’s a lot more to learn about female Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Read along to learn more about their looks, calls, and behaviors.
Close up of a perched female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers appear similar to males, but birdwatchers can distinguish them by comparing the plumage on the crown of the head.
Male Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a conspicuous red patch that extends from the nape to the base of the bill. Females usually have red napes only and a gray crown and face, although some have a few red feathers on top of the head.
Keep reading to learn how to distinguish female Red-bellied Woodpeckers from juveniles and other similar species.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
Juveniles resemble adults but have no red on the nape or crown. They appear duller overall, with a grayish head, bill, and underparts.
The female Red-bellied Woodpecker can be mistaken for the similar Golden-Fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons). However, that species has a yellow/orange nape and overlaps only in the far southwest of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers range.
The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a much larger Woodpecker with a spotted belly, a black crescent-shaped marking across its chest, a black mustache stripe (males), and a brownish back.
Close up of a female Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding on a sunflower seed
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers are medium-sized Woodpeckers with sharp, dagger-like bills. Like other birds of their family, they have zygodactyl feet with two toes pointing forwards and two pointing back. This arrangement helps them climb and cling to vertical surfaces like tree trunks.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers are striking birds. They have black backs covered in white stripes and spots, and their underparts are pale gray to cream. Their nape is red, and there is a small red patch at the bill base. Adults have the same plumage coloration and markings throughout their lives.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers fly in an undulating motion, typical of birds in the Picidae family. When seen from above, both sexes have conspicuous white patches towards the ends of their wings and the base of their tails.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers do not exactly live up to their name. They might have a slightly reddish belly, but the combination of a black and white back and red nape are much better clues for making a positive identification.
Close up of a female Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on the side of a tree
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers are slightly smaller than males, although the differences are not noticeable in the field. Females are generally about 8% lighter and have shorter bills, wings, and tails.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers also exhibit many different behaviors to their male counterparts. Read along for more identification clues and some fascinating facts.
Male (left) and female (right) pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers foraging for food
Physical differences are the easiest way to tell female Red-bellied Woodpeckers from males. However, observing bird behavior is a fascinating and rewarding side of birdwatching that can certainly help to confirm your identification.
Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between the sexes.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers tend to forage on limbs and branches, while you are more likely to see males looking for food lower down on the main trunk of a tree.
This behavioral difference is not always reliable, but it has been noted in many studies. Males and females also forage on different tree species at various times of the year in some areas, although they have similar diets.
Interestingly, male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers have different tongue shapes. The tongue tip is broader in males, which might help them focus on different prey than their female counterparts.
This adaptation could allow the pair to forage in the same area with minimal direct competition.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder eating suet
Both Sexes are vocal birds, although there are some noticeable differences.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers produce contact calls, alarm calls, and soft, intimate calls when near their partner or returning to the nest.
Females are not afraid to defend their nest site and will fight with intruding females and other unwelcome visitors. They may also produce territorial cha calls in the winter.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are well known for their drumming. They produce this non-vocal sound by tapping their bills against hollow tree trunks and other resonant surfaces like nest boxes and roofs. Males drum more, but females will drum at the nest site before breeding begins.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker perched in crepe Myrtle Tree in early spring
There are some notable differences between the male and female Red-bellied Woodpecker behavior during the breeding season. Installing a nest box is a great way to attract these birds and observe their roles.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are conspicuous during the breeding season. Nest excavation is started by the male, who calls and drums at the site to attract a partner.
If he succeeds in attracting a female to the site, she will inspect the cavity and drum if she approves. The pair may continue to drum together during the rest of the excavation process to reinforce their pair bond.
Both male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers incubate the eggs. They take turns to share this duty during the day, but the male sits on the eggs at night. The pair follow the same routine when the eggs hatch and brooding begins. These attentive birds brood their chicks until they are nearly ready to fledge the nest.
Both sexes feed their young chicks a diet of insects and fruit. They bring the food back whole rather than regurgitate it, although they will break up larger morsels during the first few days.
One study in Kansas noted that the female fed older chicks more frequently, although the parents shared this task equally for the first twelve days.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker clinging to a tree trunk, Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario
Both sexes are involved when raising a brood of baby Red-bellied Woodpeckers. A female is unlikely to succeed without the help of her partner.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers are pale cream/gray below, with a boldly striped and spotted black and white back and bright red on the back of their neck. Their legs are yellowish, their eyes are dark red, and their bills are black.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker outside of the nesting cavity
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers have less red on their underparts than the males. Birdwatchers may notice just a hint of red on their belly, but other clues like the black and white ‘zebra’ pattern on their back and the gray crown and red nape are much better field markers.
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers vocalize frequently. They produce their typical churr call and also make a soft grr contact call around the nest.
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