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Your Backyard Birds: Red-Bellied Woodpecker

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Scientific Name: Melanerpes carolinus

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a member of the Picidae family, and is the largest common woodpecker of the eastern United States.  It is found primarily in  northeastern US and southern Canada, ranging as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Its common habitat is wooded areas, including suburban neighborhoods and parks.  Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are very tolerant of humans, and are regular visitors to backyard garden feeders (especially during the winter), favoring sunflower seed, suet, and fruit.  Red-Bellied Woodpeckers climb and “hitch” along branches and trunks of trees, picking at the bark.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers have a very thick skull and strong neck that protects them from brain damage when they “drum” to attract mates, excavate nest cavities and forage for food.  They are equipped with a unique tongue that can extend 2 inches beyond its beak, and is barbed and sticky to catch insects inside deep crevices, where they gather and store food.

Female Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Female Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Identification Facts

Head to Tail Length: about 9″ – 10.5″


Distinctive Features: The Red-Bellied Woodpecker can easily be identified by its red crown and black-and-white striping on its back.  Its name is derived from a subtle red patch on it’s abdomen that is rarely seen.  Adult Red-Bellied Woodpeckers’ abdomen, chest and face are mainly grayish white.

Male & Female Characteristics: Males have a red crown running from their bill to their neck, where females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill.  Males have a bigger tongue than females.

Songs & Calls

Red-bellied woodpeckers are highly vocal and noisy birds.  Their calls sound like churr-churr-churr or  with an alternating brr sound. Both sexes are vocal, but males call and drum more often than females.  Male woodpeckers drum their beaks to attract females in the spring, sometimes pounding on metal siding and even cars to create a resonating sound.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker – call

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker Distribution

Red-Bellied Woodpecker Distribution

Nesting Behavior

Distribution: The red-bellied woodpecker can be found in most of the eastern United States, except for northernmost New England.

Nest Type: Cavity

Breeding Season: The breeding season lasts from late January to late June

Migration: During severe winters, Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been observed migrating south from northern areas to escape extreme weather.

Nest Facts: Red-bellied Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. The male carves and excavates a new cavity in a dead tree or sometimes a live tree in 7-10 days.  Three to six eggs are incubated by both the male and female. The male incubates at night, the female during the day. Chicks hatch in about 12 days, and fledge in 22-27 days. Both parents care for the young.

In some areas, many Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting cavities are taken over by starlings.  Red-bellied woodpeckers will occasionally use bird houses.

Recommended Bird House: Audubon Woodpecker Bird House

Male Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Male Red-Bellied Woodpecker


Red-bellied woodpeckers eatmostly nuts and fruits, with seeds being their primary food source during the winter.  They also eat berries, corn, acorns, beechnuts, tree sap, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, lizards, frogs, and some bird eggs and nestlings.

Commercially available food options include sunflower seed kernals, fruit and nut blends and suet.

Recommended Feeders: Clinger Feeder, Fruit Feeder, Suet Feeder and suet log feeders

Similar species

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a rather close relative but looks entirely different.  The Gila Woodpecker has a darker brown head and abdomen, and lacks the red neck and spot above bill. The Golden-Fronted Woodpecker is also similar in coloration to the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

For more information

Red-bellied Woodpecker, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Red-bellied_Woodpecker&oldid=299709896 (last visited July 1, 2009).


“by Bill Askenburg, Owner – New England Birdhouse. We specialize in fine architectural bird houses and feeders, offering handcrafted custom and stock replica bird houses and backyard birding supplies and garden decor. For more information or articles please visit our blog.”

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  1. julia spowart

    I have seen a northern red shafted flicker

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