Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding on berries
Portrait of a Red-bellied Woodpecker
23cm to 27cm
38cm to 46cm
56g to 91g
Male red-bellied woodpeckers have a solid red crown that extends from the base of the bill around the back of the head to the nape. Its face is dusky white, with coloring that extends through the chin, throat, and upper breast. A faint patch of pinkish feathers is visible on the lower belly but is not always obvious.
Their wings, back, and tail are heavily barred with black and white, and a white wing patch can be seen in flight. The bill is long, sharp and black. Legs are grayish-green and eyes are a deep brownish-red.
Females are similar to males, but their crowns and forehead are grayish-white instead of bright red. They have the same scarlet nape as males, and they also have a light pinkish stripe above the bill.
Juvenile red-bellied woodpeckers lack any red coloring, instead showing brownish-mottled plumage, with barring less clearly marked than in adult birds.
Check out this in-depth guide to Red-bellied Woodpecker Male vs Female identification for more information.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Male
Red-bellied Woodpecker Female
As well as there being distinct differences in plumage between male and female red-bellied woodpeckers, there is also a noticeable difference in size, with males being around 8 to 9 percent larger on average.
Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on the side of a branch
A rolling ‘churr’ is the most common call of a red-bellied woodpecker, heard as a repeated series of notes during the breeding season. A gruff ‘cha-cha-cha’ sound is used as a contact call between mates.
Drumming and tapping can be heard all year round but becomes especially intense during the breeding season.
Red-bellied Woodpecker calling to mate
Red-bellied woodpeckers follow an omnivorous diet, eating insects, fruits, nuts and seeds. Insects may be caught in flight as well as extracted from beneath the bark of tree trunks, especially beetles, grasshoppers, ants, flies and caterpillars. Larger prey is also frequently caught, including small birds, lizards and amphibians.
They forage for fruit, acorns, pecans, hazelnuts, and beech nuts, both on the floor and among the branches of trees, and small pieces of hard mast may be stored in natural tree crevices as a future winter supply. Sap may also be eaten.
Young red-bellied woodpeckers are fed small insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, and sap by their parents in the nest.
Red-bellied Woodpecker on the woodland ground foraging for food
In recent years, red-bellied woodpeckers have become an increasingly adaptable species, and are present in forests, woodlands, orchards, parks, and gardens, as long as there are plenty of mature trees for nesting and foraging.
Mixed woodlands, with coniferous and deciduous trees and interspersed with areas of open terrain, are preferred. Popular choices for nest construction include patches of well-established tree cover in landscapes close to water, with rivers, streams and wetland environments.
The range of red-bellied woodpeckers is located almost wholly within the United States, with only a very small area in the southwest of the Canadian province of Ontario also home to resident birds of this species.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents in the entire eastern US, as far west as Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, and Kansas, and as far south as eastern Texas and Florida. The species has no presence outside of North America.
A population of up to 15 million red-bellied woodpeckers is estimated for Canada and the United States, with the vast majority in the United States. Canada’s population is in the tens of thousands only. The southeastern states of the US are home to the largest numbers, particularly Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Red-bellied Woodpecker in woodland
Red-bellied woodpeckers are one of the eastern United States’ most abundant species of woodpecker, and their distinctive plumage makes them easy to spot against their woodland habitats and also relatively straightforward to identify.
From the central states westward, sightings become scarce. In Canada, they are highly uncommon, with only a small, but increasing, population in Ontario.
The southeastern coastal plain of the US has the highest rates of relative abundance of red-bellied woodpeckers. A good spot for potential sightings is along the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, where red-bellied woodpeckers are particularly widespread and abundant.
The southwestern tip of Ontario is home to Canada’s small breeding population of red-bellied woodpeckers, and sightings outside of this region are especially rare.
Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on the side of a tree searching for insects
The average lifespan of a red-bellied woodpecker is believed to be at least 8 years, with the oldest identified individual recorded at 12 years and 3 months. No data is available for the first breeding age, although it is thought to be one year.
Hawks (sharp-shinned and Cooper’s) are the leading avian predators of adult and fledgling red-bellied woodpeckers, which may also be targeted by black rat snakes and domestic cats. Nests are sometimes attacked by starlings, red-headed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers and snakes.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act safeguards red-bellied woodpeckers against being killed, injured, traded for sale, or taken into captivity from the wild. Their nests, eggs, and young are also protected from being destroyed or damaged.
With a large geographical range and the ability to survive in a diverse range of habitats, red-bellied woodpeckers are not currently to be considered to be facing any threats to their future survival. Hence they have been rated as a species of least concern globally.
Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on top of an old tree trunk
Nest cavities are hollowed out by both males and females, usually taking around 2 weeks to complete the process. Nest sites are chosen on the underside of large rotting branches, close to the trunk, or on leaning tree trunks. Both hardwood and softwood trees may be used, including oaks, hickories, maple, sycamore, ash, and cottonwoods are popular species.
Nests are typically built at a height of between 5 and 31 m (16 to 100 ft). Nest boxes may also occasionally be used if available.
Earliest nesting preparations begin in January when pairs start to form, and nest sites are surveyed. Nest construction may begin from March onwards, with laying commencing in late April. Incubation, shared between mates, takes 12 to 14 days, and one sole brood is raised each season.
A typical red-bellied woodpecker clutch consists of 2 to 6 eggs, with 4 being the most usual number. Eggs are smooth and plain white, measuring on average 25 mm by 19 mm (1 in by 0.7 in).
Pairs form early in the year, and bonds are cemented by mutual tapping during courtship and the female giving approval to a nest cavity chiseled out by the male. After raising one brood together, it’s usual for pairs to separate. They may reunite the following year, but may also seek a new mate to breed with.
Red-bellied Woodpecker Female (left) and Male (right) at the nest
Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding its young at the nest
Aggressive displays may be observed when intruders enter the established territory of a red-bellied woodpecker, with hostile posturing, chasing, and even physical grappling between rivals.
Immediately after fledging, red-bellied woodpeckers roost in the open, finding spots close to the trunk of a tree to rest on overnight. Adult birds roost individually in empty cavities, either one they have excavated themselves but not pursued as a nest choice or in a hollow created naturally or by another species.
Red-bellied Woodpecker resting close to a tree trunk
Largely a resident and sedentary species, some movement among red-bellied woodpecker populations in the extreme north of their range or at higher altitude elevations may occur post-breeding.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are native to the US and are widespread throughout eastern and central regions. A small number are found in the southwestern corner of Ontario, but aside from these, the entire population of the species can be found in the United States.
Red-bellied Woodpecker in-flight
Red-bellied woodpeckers are known to visit backyard feeders, particularly in winter, where they are drawn to suet, fruits (especially oranges, grapes, and apples), peanuts and mealworms.
Despite being seen by some as a pest species due to their hammering and drilling habits, red-bellied woodpeckers are in fact good to have around. They control insect populations by feasting on bugs and play an important role in the wider food chain, with their eggs and nestlings serving as prey for several predators.
The cavities they drill in trees are hugely beneficial to many other wildlife species that are unable to excavate their own hollows but require a safe chamber in which to lay their own eggs and raise their young.
In addition, as fruit and seed eaters, red-bellied woodpeckers play a key role in biodiversity, with seed dispersal and the subsequent regeneration of plant-rich habitats.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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