16 Interesting Facts About The Red-Bellied Woodpecker


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The red-bellied woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker both have red heads. This causes confusion about which bird is seen by birdwatchers.

The belly of the red-bellied woodpecker is not actually very red, with a blush-like appearance that is very difficult to see from far away.

Males and females of this species work together. They remain monogamous during the breeding season to find suitable nesting, incubate eggs, and care for their young.

Unlike other insect-eating birds, they have different toe anatomy, which allows them to remain upright when going up and down trees.

There are many more interesting facts about these beautiful birds. Keep reading to discover some surprising facts about the red-bellied woodpecker.

1. Its Belly Is Not Noticeably Red

Despite its name, the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) does not have a noticeably red belly. Instead, it has a light brushing of blush-red on its underside that is hard to see at all from a distance.  

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The male of this species has a bright red, capped head, which makes it easily mistaken for the red-headed woodpecker (a different species: Melanerpes erythrocephalus).

Adult red-bellied woodpeckers are primarily light gray on the face and underparts, with a black and white barred pattern on the wings, tail, and back. The patterning looks much like zebra stripes.

A male’s bright red cap extends from the bill and over the head to the nape. Females have a red patch above the bill and a separate one on the nape. Both genders have thick, black, straight bills, dark gray legs, and gray feet.

Juvenile red-bellied woodpeckers look like a duller version of adults. The patterning may be less distinctive and their crowns without red.


2. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Have A Long Tongue

A red-bellied woodpecker’s tongue can reach out about two inches past the tip of its beak. The tongue’s tip is barbed and covered with sticky spit.  

This makes it easier for the woodpecker to catch prey within the folds and cracks of tree bark and other crevices.


3. Males & Females Forage In Different Spots On Trees

Male red-bellied woodpeckers have longer and wider-tipped tongues than their female counterparts. As a result, males can access food deeper within the cracks. 

Males are found foraging more on tree trunks, whereas females are more often seen on tree limbs. Females will also climb higher on the trees than males.


4. They Use A Variety Of Methods To Eat

Red-bellied woodpeckers are omnivores, eating a variety of foods, and using their bill to forage, glean, probe, drill, and catch (hawking).  

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They eat suet from bird feeders, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. They will drink nectar from hummingbird feeders using their long tongues.

They feast on berries, and tree sap, and use bark crevices to help them crack open acorns and other nuts. 

These birds also search for insects on tree trunks and catch others on the wing in mid-air. 

Red-bellied woodpeckers also eat a variety of other foods. These include arthropods, invertebrates, eggs, frogs, fish, and nestlings.

They cache food in the cracks of trees and even fence posts when food supplies are low.

Red-bellied woodpeckers eat small prey whole. However, if it is too large, they will trash it against a tree to kill it and then pick it apart into smaller, consumable pieces.


5. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Are Seasonally Monogamous

Red-bellied woodpeckers are solitary outside of the breeding season and while raising offspring. These birds form seasonally monogamous pairs using communication to meet a mate in March or April.  

Males will peck on aluminum gutters of homes, trees, and other surfaces to make a loud, attractive noise. They also produce low sounds such as “grr, grr” or “kwirr, kwirr”. 

Females will mutually tap with males when communicating about choosing nesting sites.

Breeding pairs typically only stay together for one season.


6. Males Find The Nesting Cavities

Red-bellied woodpeckers prefer cavities in dead trees, old stumps, or softwood trees such as willows, elms, or maples. These are surfaces that they can easily drill into.

The male typically starts the site, and once the female agrees that it is suitable, she will finish excavating it and preparing it for eggs. 

The wood chips from excavations serve as a soft bed for the eggs. The area around the nesting site will also have drilled holes as a way to warn others away.

After mating, the females lay 2 to 6 eggs which are then incubated by both parents for about 12 days. In colder northern areas, red-bellied woodpeckers have 1 brood, and in southern areas, they can have up to 3 broods.


7. Both Parents Care For The Brood

The offspring are born helpless, with shut eyes and no feathers, needing much parental care. Both parents spend a lot of time and energy caring for their young. This starts with joint nest excavation and incubation. 

The chicks start to develop claws and tail and flight feathers about 6 days after hatching. The parents feed the hatchlings for 24 to 27 days in the nest.

They continue to feed and help them forage for up to 10 weeks once they have left the nest.


8. They Are Found Primarily In The Eastern United States

These birds are found in the eastern forests of the United States extending down into Florida. Some red-bellied woodpeckers have been spotted in southern Ontario, Canada as well. 

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Their range is from the Great plain States to the Atlantic Coast, including portions of New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Red-bellied woodpeckers tend to live in old forests with large hardwood trees. However, they are also found living in mixed pine, swampy, or riparian forests, and other areas with lots of trees. 


9. They Fight Or Flight In Response To Predators

Red-bellied woodpeckers are the prey of many predators, including other birds. Threats include sharp-shinned hawks, domestic cats, snakes, red-headed woodpeckers, European starlings, and pileated woodpeckers.

When a predator approaches, the red-bellied woodpecker will either fight or take flight. 

They fight by producing loud vocalizations to harass the predator and may directly attack if it comes close to their nests or young. In other cases, red-bellied woodpeckers will quickly fly away to escape.


10. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Fly With A Roller Coaster Motion

These birds walk, climb, hop, and erratically fly. They have an undulating flight pattern, much like a rollercoaster ride. They flap their wings in short bursts to gain height and glide into freefalls by folding in their wings. 

Red-bellied woodpeckers fly in playful ways. They dodge amongst trees, abruptly changing directions, or briefly alighting and taking off again.

They do this all while releasing a quick chattering of calls. They may be doing this to practice evasive flight from predators.


11. They Are Noisy Birds

These fascinating birds have varied calls and are often thought of as noisy. 

Most commonly both sexes make shrill rolling “churr”, “che”, “cha”, or “kwirr” sounds. Males produce a gruff, “cha, cha, cha” when interacting with other males.

When the birds are close together, they will produce a throaty growl.

Offspring make a “pip” sound right before hatching. They then produce a high-pitched “pree-pree-pree” sound when hungry for food.

The noisiest sounds come from their drumming. This is heard on aluminum surfaces, hollow trees, and even transformer boxes in suburban and urban areas. They can drum up to 19 times in one second.

Here is a video demonstrating their calls and drumming:


12. They Have An Ecological Impact

Red-bellied woodpeckers have an important ecological role. They help to control insect pest populations, such as the larvae of wood-boring insects as well as adult termites and carpenter ants.

Once abandoned, the cavities that they produce in trees also provide shelter for other animals such as bats and squirrels.


13. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Are Victims Of Nest Theft

Other birds compete with red-bellied woodpeckers for cavity nesting sites.

These include red-cockaded woodpeckers, northern flickers, red-headed woodpeckers, and downy woodpeckers. Flying squirrels will also compete for these spots.

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European starlings, invasive, non-native birds, will kill adult red-bellied woodpeckers and their eggs and nestlings to steal their nests. These birds are responsible for a large part of cavity nest thefts.


14. They Have Shock-Absorbing Bills 

All species of woodpeckers have drilling chisel-tipped bills to excavate holes. They also use their bills to drum against surfaces, and access food with powerful hammering.  

The red-bellied woodpecker’s skull and surrounding muscles absorb the impact of this powerful force. This protects their brains and other organs.


15. They Have Zygodactyl Feet To Stay Upright When Climbing

Typically, tree-insect-eating species of birds, such as nuthatches, walk head-first down trees. 

These kinds of birds have a foot with three forward toes and one back, hooked toe (hallux), called an anisodactyl arrangement. This allows the bird to grip with the back toe as it maneuvers down a tree.

However, red-bellied woodpeckers have a zygodactyl toe arrangement with two toes forward and two toes back. They climb up trees by hitching, or hopping, upward or downwards using their tails for support.


16. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Do Not Usually Migrate

Red-bellied woodpeckers do not usually migrate. But if they do, it is a partial migration to move from extreme northern temperatures to warmer southern ones. 

They typically stay and defend their territory year-round, which is about 0.0062 to 0.062 square miles.


Conclusion

Red-bellied woodpeckers are fascinating creatures, despite their confusing name. They have zebra-like patterning on their feathers with a red-capped head and a barely visible light-blush-red belly.  

They are found primarily in the eastern United States and typically do not migrate. Both parents help to raise their young in and out of the nest. They will defend themselves or fly in erratic roller-coaster-like patterns.

Their unique foot anatomy allows them to remain upright as they climb up and down trees. Their long sticky tongues with barred tips allow them to probe into cracks and crevices to get food. 

These facts and more as mentioned above, make the red-bellied bird an enjoyable creature to watch.

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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