Red-Bellied Woodpecker

(Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-Bellied Woodpecker:

The drumming in early spring signals that the male is claiming territory and hopes to court a mate for a season of nesting and raising young to adulthood.

A suet feeder or a peanut feeder will bring them close during spring and summer. You may also spy a woodpecker on your oriole feeder and orange halves.

These birds also cache food. Storing nuts in crevices of tree bark for later consumption. First removing the outer shell or husk and then tapping it into and under tree bark.

Red-bellied woodpecker male

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.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has extended its breeding range north over the last 100 years.

Populations are increasing throughout most of the range.


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.

Red-bellied woodpecker male


The male Red-Belly is about 9 inches in length with a wingspread of about 17 inches. He has bands of black and white on his back referred to as a "ladder back."

The male has red crown, forehead and nape. Its upperparts are streaked black and white. Face and belly are dull grey. Uppertail coverts are white.There is a suffusion of pink or red on the center of the belly (what I often call a strawberry color).

Central tail feathers are barred black and white.

Adult female is red on the head is limited to nasal tufts (just above the bill) and nape; wash of color on the belly is paler, less extensive. In rare individual females, the nape and nasal tufts can be yellow-orange instead of red.

Juvenile: resembles adults but duller, with red nasal tuft and nape patches lacking; bill is brownish (black in adults).

All Red-Bellied Woodpeckers show a black-and-white barred back, white uppertail coverts, grayish white underparts, black chevrons on the lower flanks and undertail coverts, and barred central tail feathers.

In flight a small white patch shows at the base of the primaries.

Red-Bellies have a long, chisel-shaped bill. Bill and eyes are black. Legs and feet are dark grey. Feet are zygodactyls, with 2 toes forward and 2 backward.

Mating and Courtship:

Similar to all woodpeckers, the Red-bellied uses drumming as the primary source for attracting and communicating with potential mates.

This habit of drumming may be done on trees, hollow limbs, gutters, metal flashing, siding of your house, utility poles, or any other material that it finds resonates well for its needs. Many people have had a good slumber ruined by this tapping.

Considered monogamous throughout the breeding season. Some may form pair bonds lasting over several seasons.

Female Red-bellied woodpecker

An unusual part of courtship with this woodpecker species is mutual tapping. Generally done at a potential nesting cavity, one bird will enter as the other stays outside and each will take turns tapping to the other.

Nests in dead trees (hardwoods or pines), dead limbs of live trees, and fence posts.

The same pair may nest in the same tree year after year, but typically excavate a new cavity each year, often placing the new one beneath the previous year’s.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers lay their eggs on the bed of wood chips left over after excavating their nest cavity.

Clutch Size: 2 - 8 eggs smooth white eggs.

Egg Length: 0.9 - 1.1 in (2.2–2.9 cm).

Incubation Period: 12 - 14 days.

Nestling Period: 24 - 27 days .

In some areas, half of all Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting cavities are taken over by starlings.


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.

Status and Distribution:

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are common in the Southeast, uncommon to fairly common in the Northeast, Midwest, and Great Plains. Year-round: Pine and hardwood forests, open woodlands, suburbs and parks. Small populations exist west to southeastern North Dakota, central South Dakota, and northeastern Colorado.


Not migratory, but at least some individuals in northern range withdraw southward in fall.


Wanders casually north to central Ontario, southern Quebec, Maine, and the maritime provinces of Canada and west to eastern New Mexico; accidental in southeastern Wyoming, Idaho, and Saskatchewan.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker and Other Common Birds Profiles Page

Feeding Birds

Woodpecker, butterflies, gardens and more.

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