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Red-bellied Woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Red-bellied Woodpecker Photo

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 them Red-headed Woodpeckers, 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.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
9.4 in
24 cm
Wingspan
13–16.5 in
33–42 cm
Weight
2–3.2 oz
56–91 g
Relative Size
Same size as Hairy Woodpecker; three-quarters the size of a Northern Flicker
Other Names
  • Pic à ventre roux (French)

Cool Facts

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Habitat


Forest

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.

Food


Insects

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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.1 in
2.2–2.9 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.9 in
1.7–2.2 cm
Incubation Period
12 days
Nestling Period
24–27 days
Egg Description
Smooth white.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless, eyes closed.
Nest Description

Red-bellied Woodpeckers lay their eggs on the bed of wood chips left over after excavating their nest cavity. Nest holes are 22 to 32 centimeters deep, with a cylindrical living space of roughly 9 by 13 centimeters.

Nest Placement

Cavity

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.

Behavior


Bark Forager

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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Red-bellied Woodpecker populations increased throughout most of their range from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 10 million with 100 percent found in the U.S. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have extended their breeding range north over the last 100 years.

Credits

Range Map Help

Red-bellied Woodpecker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident

Backyard Tips

Red-bellied Woodpeckers bring bright colors and entertaining action to bird feeders. If you live near any wooded patches, you may be able to attract them using feeders filled with suet (in winter), peanuts, and sometimes sunflower seeds. They’ve even been spotted drinking nectar from hummingbird feeders. Dead trees may encourage the birds to forage naturally or even nest in your yard, and they may feed on berry trees such as hawthorn or mountain-ash in fall or winter.

Find This Bird

Keep an eye out for this species in eastern woodlands all year round, particularly at middle heights and along main branches and trunks of trees. It pays to learn the bird’s calls, too: Red-bellied Woodpeckers are loud and call frequently during spring and summer.

Get Involved

Landscape your yard for woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds (PDF)

Red-bellied Woodpeckers love to come to bird feeders. Watch them and report your sightings as part of Project FeederWatch, the Great Backyard Bird Count, or all year long via the free online program eBird.

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