Red bellied woodpeckers are a very common and recognizable woodpecker in the eastern United States. Their somewhat large size, bold coloring, and loud calls make them a memorable and familiar sight for many. They even visit backyard bird feeders and seem more comfortable around humans than other, more reclusive species. Let’s explore the world of red bellied woodpeckers and discover some amazing facts about these stunning birds.
1. Their namesake red belly is hard to see.
Despite their name, the red belly of this woodpecker isn’t very noticeable. Because of the large red stripe on their head, many people think they should be named the red-headed woodpecker. Problem is, that name is already taken by another species that does have an entirely red head. So while their red belly isn’t their most stand-out feature, it is pretty unique to this species.
This phantom red belly is more of a pink-hued patch of feathers located far down on the lower belly area, which is often pressed up against a tree trunk and not visible. Your best bet to see it is if you catch one of these woodpeckers hanging from a bird feeder. I got a good photo of this below when a red-bellied visited our window suet feeder.
2. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are agile.
Speaking of hanging from feeders, these woodpeckers can be rather acrobatic. They have impressive climbing abilities and agile maneuvering that help them navigate around trees while pursuing insects and other prey. At bird feeders you may notice they are excellent clingers, able to hang off of just about anything in order to reach suet or tasty seeds.
3. Male red-bellied woodpeckers perform loud drumming.
Male woodpeckers perform a rapid-fire drilling of their beaks against a hard object called “drumming”. It sounds a bit like a jack-hammer. Drumming is not used to locate insects, rather it is intended to be as loud as possible and for the sound to carry as far as possible. This is why a hard surface is chosen, sometimes wood or even metal from a gutter or chimney cap.
Drumming is used to communicate with other woodpeckers. Most often for claiming territory or finding mates – which is why you’ll hear it more often in the spring. If you hear one banging on your gutter don’t worry too much, it usually doesn’t cause damage. The red bellied woodpecker can drum 19 beats a second!
4. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are omnivores.
Red-bellied woodpeckers eat a variety of foods, placing them squarely in the omnivore category. Insects are their main prey, which they grab from the bark of trees or by drilling into trees. Plant matter is an important food source too, including fruits, nuts, pinecone seeds and acorns. Depending on their habitat and food availability, they have been known to take advantage of lizards and small minnows as well.
5. Red-bellied Woodpeckers Cache Food To Prepare For Lean Times
Red-bellied woodpeckers employ various strategies to improve their chances of survival. For example, they often wedge nuts, like acorns or hickory nuts, into tree bark crevices 1-3 inches deep. They do this by using their beaks to hammer the nuts into the tree bark, creating storage holes where they can hide food. This is especially beneficial during times when food sources are scarce.
6. They have distinctive Vocalizations
In addition to their rhythmic drumming sounds, red-bellied woodpeckers communicate through an assortment of calls. Their vocalizations vary from a soft, vibrating “churr” sound to their sharp one-note call. They sometimes repeat a gravelly cha-cha-cha that sounds a bit to me like a small dog barking. Each call serves various purposes ranging from contact calls to warning signals for threats.
7. Dead Trees Are Red-bellied Woodpeckers preferred nesting sites.
Building nests is an art for these woodpeckers, skillfully excavating cavities in trees. Sometimes the red-bellied woodpecker will utilize existing holes, but they most often prefer to create a fresh hole each time. In fact, they may choose the same tree several years in a row, but carve out a new cavity each time. Dead or dying trees make the best nest sites, since the wood tends to be softer and easier to get through.
Red-bellied woodpecker nest holes are around 8.5 – 12.5 inches deep. Instead of building a nest at the bottom of the cavity, they leave a layer of woodchips to lay their eggs on.
8. Males present nesting sites and try to woo females.
When it comes to the “dating game”, the male red-bellied woodpecker will start working on a nest cavity hoping to impress a lady. He will then remain next to the hole calling and tapping on the wood to try and get the females attention. A curious female will come over to inspect his work. If she accepts his mating proposal, she will tap along with him, then help to finish the nest hole.
9. They Don’t Mate For Life
While the red-bellied woodpecker may form a bond that lasts for several seasons, they do not mate for life. In most instances, the male and female woodpecker will mate for one breeding season.
10. Males and Females look slightly different.
The vibrant colors and patterns of red-bellied woodpeckers make them easy to identify. Males proudly exhibit a red crown extending from their beaks to the back of their heads, while females have a gray forehead and red at the nape. Both genders showcase heavy black and white barring on the wings, with a pale breast.
11. Red-bellied Woodpeckers Are Adaptable In Urban Settings
These woodpeckers show no hesitation when it comes to exploring urban areas. They have impressively adapted to living in parks, wooded neighborhoods, and even frequenting backyard feeders. If your neighborhood has tall trees, there is a good chance you can attract these entertaining woodpeckers to your feeders using suet, peanut pieces or sunflower seeds (especially shelled).
12. Red-bellied Woodpeckers Use Their Tail Like a Kickstand.
Similar to most woodpecker species, the red-belly has stiff tail feathers that they can use to help steady themselves. While their sharp claws do a good job of gripping the bark of trees, they need to brace their bodies while drilling and pecking. They can achieve this extra security by pushing their tail feathers against the tree, like the kickstand on a bicycle.
13. Extra Long Tongues Help The Red-Bellied Woodpecker Reach Insects
Red-bellied woodpeckers can extend their tongue a full two inches past the end of their beak. The tip of their tongue is barbed and their saliva is extra sticky, helping them reach deep into crevices and snatch up insects. They rapidly extend and contract their tongues, quickly lapping up large colonies of beetles, ants, or whatever else they find. You may even see them using these long tongues to drink from hummingbird feeders, or reach seeds and suet in cage feeders.
14. Red-bellied Woodpeckers Don’t Migrate
Unlike some birds that migrate with the changing seasons, red-bellied woodpeckers are residents in their habitats throughout the year. They endure various seasons, which showcase their resilience and adaptability to withstand scorching summers and bitter winters. With that said however, some red-bellied woodpeckers in the north may move south during periods of extreme cold.
15. Their Feather Pattern Helps Them Camouflage
Apart from their eye-catching red caps, red-bellied woodpeckers possess intricate black and white patterns on their wings. These patterns serve as a form of disguise that enables them to blend into their surroundings while searching for insects or evading threats. At face value they may seem to stand out to us, however that series of stripes and bars helps them blend in against tree bark and in thick vegetation.
16. Impact on Ecosystems
Red-bellied woodpeckers play an essential role in their ecosystems. By foraging for insects and controlling populations of wood-boring beetles, they contribute to the health of forests. Additionally, their abandoned nesting cavities provide homes for other cavity-nesting species.
- “Red-bellied Woodpecker”, John Barnes, All About Birds, allaboutbirds.org
- “The Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes Carolinus) Is One Of Our Most Beautiful Woodpeckers …”, Virginia Museum of Natural History, December 8, 2020, vmnh.net
- “Woodpeckers and your home”, Tina Shaw, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, fws.gov
- “Melanerpes carolinus Red-bellied woodpecker”, Kari Kirschbaum and Liesl Eckhardt, Animal Diversity Web, animaldiversity.org
- “Red-Bellied Woodpecker”, National Wildlife Federation, nwf.org
Amanda has a love for beekeeping and all things related to nature. She is also a small business owner, crafting various goods using the honey and beeswax harvested from her hives. Amanda resides in the tranquil mountains of West Virginia where she shares her home with her husband and beloved feline companions.