Red-bellied Woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus

The Red-bellied Woodpeckers are pale, medium-sized woodpeckers common in forests of the East. Their strikingly barred backs and gleaming red caps make them an unforgettable sight – just resist the temptation to call it a Red-headed Woodpecker, a somewhat rarer species that's mostly black on the back with big white wing patches. Learn the Red-bellied's rolling call and you’ll notice these birds everywhere.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • You may sometimes see Red-bellied Woodpeckers wedge large nuts into bark crevices, then whack them into manageable pieces using their beaks. They also use cracks in trees and fence posts to store food for later in the year, a habit it shares with other woodpeckers in its genus. Starling. In some areas, half of all Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting cavities are taken over by starlings.
  • For birds that nest in cavities, nest holes are precious turf. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been known to take over the nests of other birds, including the much smaller (and endangered) Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But more often they’re victims to the aggressive European Starling. As many as half of all Red-bellied Woodpecker nests in some areas get invaded by starlings
  • You may occasionally see a Red-bellied Woodpecker flying quickly and erratically through the forest, abruptly changing direction, alighting for an instant and immediately taking off again, keeping up a quick chatter of calls. Scientists categorize this odd behavior as a type of play that probably helps young birds practice the evasive action they may one day need.resources in one area.
  • A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.
  • The oldest known Red-bellied Woodpecker was 12 years 1 month old.


Size & Shape

A sleek, round-headed woodpecker, about the same size as a Hairy Woodpecker but without the blocky outlines.

Color Pattern

Often appears pale overall, even the boldly black-and-white striped back, with flashing red cap and nape. Look for white patches near the wingtips as this bird flies.

Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
     Subfamily: Picinae
Genus: Melanerpes
Species: Melanerpes carolinus
The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s most common call is a shrill, rolling kwirr or churr given by both sexes. You might also hear a gruff, coughing cha cha cha sounding through the woods, usually a contact call between mates, or a throaty growl exchanged when birds are close together.

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Length Range: 23-27 cm (9-10.5 in)
  • Weight: 68 g (2.4 oz)
  • Size: Medium (9 - 16 in)
  • Color Primary: Black, Gray
  • Underparts: White with some black spotting on lower belly.
  • Upperparts: Black and white barring.
  • Back Pattern: Barred or banded
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: Dagger, All-purpose
  • Eye Color: Dark brown in adults and juveniles.
  • Head Pattern: Plain, Unique pattern
  • Crown Color: Red
  • Forehead Color: Red
  • Nape Color: Red
  • Throat Color: White
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Undulating flight with fairly rapid wing beats interspersed with periods of roller-coaster flight with wings folded.
  • Wingspan Range: 38-46 cm (15-18 in)
  • Wing Shape: Rounded-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Fan-shaped Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Barred
  • Upper Tail: Black and white barred.
  • Under Tail: Black
  • Leg Color: Gray
  • Breeding Location: Forest
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous, Solitary nester
  • Breeding Population: Fairly common to common
  • Egg Color: White
  • Number of Eggs: 3 - 7
  • Incubation Days: 11 - 14
  • Egg Incubator: Female
  • Nest Material: Wood chips in base of cavity.
  • Migration: Migratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Naked and helpless, eyes closed.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Pic à ventre roux (French)
  • The Golden-fronted Woodpecker of south Texas has yellow on the forehead and back of the neck.
  • The Red-headed Woodpecker has an all-red head and neck, black back, and large white patches on the wing.
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker of Texas and the Southwest is smaller, with a black-and-white striped head and barred flanks.
  • Northern Flickers have brown-and-black barred backs (not black-and-white) and are spotted below, with a black crescent on the chest.
  • Hairy and Downy woodpeckers have a long white stripe down the middle of the back.

Conservation Status

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has extended its breeding range north over the last 100 years. Populations are increasing throughout most of the range.




Sources used to Construct this Page:

You can find this species across most of the forests, woodlands, and wooded suburbs of the eastern United States, including oak-hickory forest, pine-hardwood forest, maple and tulip-poplar stands, and pine flatwoods. It’s a bit more common in river bottoms and wetlands, in the south of its range, and at elevations below about 2,000 feet.
  • Shackelford, Clifford E., Raymond E. Brown and Richard N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Longevity Records
Though this bird mainly eats insects, spiders, and other arthropods, it eats plenty of plant material, too. In particular, acorns, nuts, and pine cones, as well as seeds extracted from annual and perennial plants and (particularly in fall and winter) fruits ranging from grapes and hackberries to oranges and mangoes. Occasionally eats lizards, nestling birds, even minnows.
These birds often stick to main branches and trunks of trees, where they hitch in classic woodpecker fashion, leaning away from the trunk and onto their stiff tail feathers as they search for food hiding in bark crevices. When nesting, males choose the site and begin to excavate, then try to attract a female by calling and tapping softly on the wood around or in the cavity. When a female accepts, she taps along with the male, then helps put the finishing touches on the nest cavity. At feeders, Red-bellied Woodpeckers will push aside most bird species other than Blue Jays.

Adult Male

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Male

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All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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