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red-bellied woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus

What do they look like?

Red-bellied woodpeckers are medium sized birds with a distinctive black-and-white patterned back and a long, chisel-shaped bill. Adults weigh about 72.5 grams (range 56 to 91 g), and are 22.9 to 26.7 cm long. They have a wingspan of 38 to 46 cm. Males are about 8-9% larger, on average, than females. Two characteristics that distinguish red-bellied woodpeckers from woodpeckers are the black and white zebra stripe pattern on their backs, and their red belly (which is actually just a very small patch on their underside). Their face and the rest of their belly are a dull grayish color. Male red-bellied woodpeckers have a bright red cap from their forehead to the base of their neck. Females have red only on the their necks. Both males and females have thick, black straight bills and dark gray legs and feet. Their feet are zygodactylous (two toes forward, two toes back), unlike most birds (but like all other members of the Piciformes) which have three toes forward and one toe back. This foot arrangement helps them to climb upright up tree trunks.

Young red-bellied woodpeckers look similar to adults, but they have a horn-colored bill. They also don't have any red color on their heads. Unlike many birds, red-bellied woodpeckers do not change at all in color throughout the year. ("Chipper Woods Bird Observatory: Red Bellied Woodpecker", 2001; Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    75.2 g
    2.65 oz
  • Average mass
    72.5 g
    2.56 oz
  • Range length
    22.9 to 26.7 cm
    9.02 to 10.51 in
  • Range wingspan
    38 to 46 cm
    14.96 to 18.11 in

Where do they live?

Red-bellied woodpeckers are found in the eastern half of the United States. Their range extends east from the wooded portion of the Great Plain states to the Atlantic coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to southern portions of Ontario and northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. ()

What kind of habitat do they need?

Red-bellied woodpeckers live in forests. They prefer old forests with large hardwood trees, but they can also live in mixed pine-hardwood forests, mesic pine flatwoods, bottomlands where there are lots of trees, swampy woods, and riparian forests. They usually live below 600 m elevation, but can be found at up to 900 m in the Apalachian mountains. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Range elevation
    900 (high) m
    2952.76 (high) ft

How do they reproduce?

Red-bellied woodpeckers seem to be monogamous (one male mates with one female). Breeding pairs form any time from early winter to late spring. Males attract females with a combination of tapping on trees and other objects, making "kwirr" calls, and drumming. Mutual tapping (when the male and female tap together) is one way that pairs communicate, especially when selecting the nest site. Breeding pairs do not appear to stay together for more than one season. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

Breeding pairs begin forming between early winter and late spring. They begin nesting in March and April. The male and female select a nest site together. They visit potential nest sites, and communicate by mutual tapping; one member of the pair taps softly on the wood from inside a cavity, and the other taps back from the outside. Nests are usually excavated in dead trees or in the dead limbs of live trees. The male and female both excavate the nest cavity, which has an opening about 5.9 cm wide and 5.7 cm tall. When the cavity is complete, the female lays about four eggs. She lays one egg each day. The eggs are smooth, oval, and glossy white. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 12 days.

"Pip"-ing sounds come from the eggs about two hours before hatching. The chicks are altricial (helpless) when they hatch. They don't have any down or feathers and their eyes are shut. About six days after hatching, their eyes begin to open and claws, retrices and remiges appear. They begin to grow feathers when they are about 12 days old. While they are in the nest, both parents feed the chicks. The chicks leave the nest (called fledging) when they are 24 to 27 days old.

The chicks usually stay near the nest for a few days after fledging. After about two days, they begin to follow their parents around. The parents help them to forage and feed them for up to 10 weeks. Toward the end of this period, the adults drive the fledglings away. The young birds are probably able to breed the next spring when they are about 1 year old. Most red-bellied woodpeckers raise one brood per season. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Red-bellied woodpeckers breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Nesting usually begins in March or April.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    12 days
  • Average time to hatching
    11 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 to 27 days
  • Range time to independence
    2 to 10 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (low) years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 (low) years

Male and female red-bellied woodpeckers both spend a lot of time and energy taking care of their young. They both excavate the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the chicks for up to 10 weeks after they leave the nest. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The oldest known red-bellied woodpecker lived to be at least 12 years and 1 month old. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

How do they behave?

Red-bellied woodpeckers usually do not migrate. However, those that live in the north may move south during very cold winters. They are active during the day. They are also solitary, except during the breeding season when they spend time with a mate and their chicks. Red-bellied woodpeckers defend a territory all year round. The size of their territory is usually between 0.016 and 0.16 square kilometers.

Red-bellied woodpeckers move around by walking, climbing and hopping. They climb up tree trunks (called hitching) by hopping upward and using their tails to support themselves.

Red-bellied woodpeckers have been seen playing. They play by flying and dodging among trees as if they were trying to escape a predator. When predators are nearby, red-bellied woodpeckers make alarm calls and fly to shelter in nearby trees. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Range territory size
    0.016 to 0.16 km^2

Home Range

Red-bellied woodpecker home ranges that have been measured have ranged from 3.5 to 19 ha.

How do they communicate with each other?

Red-bellied woodpeckers communicate using calls, non-vocal sounds (drumming), and body signals. This is a noisy species. They call and drum year-round, but they are most noisy during the breeding season. Red-bellied woodpeckers use six calls to communicate. They also communicate by drumming on dead trees, dead stubs and utility poles with their beaks. Drumming communicates ownership of a territory and is used to communicate between breeding pairs. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

What do they eat?

Red-bellied woodpeckers are omnivorous. They eat a wide variety of fruits, nuts, seeds, berries and tree sap, as well as arboreal arthropods and other invertebrates. These include ants, flies, grasshoppers, beetle larvae and caterpillars. Red-bellied woodpeckers also eat small vertebrates, including brown and green anoles, tree frogs, small fish, nestling birds and bird eggs.

Gleaning, probing, excavating, pecking, bark scaling, and hawking are all methods used by red-bellied woodpeckers to search for food. Once they find food, they eat small items by swallowing them whole. If they catch large prey, red-bellied woodpeckers thrash the prey against a tree and pick it apart into small pieces. Red-bellied woodpeckers have a very long, pointed, sticky tongue with a pointed tip. They use their tongues to pry pieces of food out of cracks in tree bark.

Red-bellied woodpeckers hunt for food on tree trunks and limbs. Males and females search for food differently. Males forage primarily on trunks, while females forage primarily on tree limbs. Females also forage higher on the trees than males.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are known to store extra food to eat later. They store nuts, acorns, corn, fruits, seeds and insects in cracks and crevices in trees or wooden posts. ("Chipper Woods Bird Observatory: Red Bellied Woodpecker", 2001; Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • sap or other plant fluids

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators of adult red-bellied woodpeckers include birds of prey such as sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks, black rat snakes and house cats. Known predators of nestlings and eggs include red-headed woodpeckers, European starlings, pileated woodpeckers, gray rat snakes and black rat snakes.

When approached by a predator, red-bellied woodpeckers either hide from the predator, or harass it with alarm calls. They defend their nests and young aggressively, and may directly attack predators that come near the nest.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Red-bellied woodpeckers affect the populations of the animals they eat. They also provide food for their predators. They host at least two species of mites, Menacanthus precursor and Philopterus californiensis.

Red-bellied woodpeckers compete for food with blue jays and several other species of woodpeckers. They compete for nest sites with red-cockaded woodpeckers, European starlings, northern flickers, flying squirrels, red-headed woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers. Abandoned red-bellied woodpecker nest holes are used by a variety of other cavity-nesting birds and mammals. (Shackelford, et al., 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of red-bellied woodpeckers on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Red-bellied woodpeckers help to control insects that are considered pest species. ("Chipper Woods Bird Observatory: Red Bellied Woodpecker", 2001)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Red-bellied woodpeckers appear to have become more common in recent years. Because this species can live in many different forest types of different ages, it is less likely to be threatened or endangered than other woodpecker species. This species is also successfully because it can live in suburban environments, which are becoming more common. There are about 10,000,000 red-bellied woodpeckers in the world. They are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. ("Chipper Woods Bird Observatory: Red Bellied Woodpecker", 2001; Shackelford, et al., 2000)


Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Liesl Eckhardt (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


2001. "Chipper Woods Bird Observatory: Red Bellied Woodpecker" (On-line). Accessed March 21, 2001 at

1990. Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Pp. 203 in Book of North American Birds. New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

Perring, C., A. Middleton. 1985. Woodpeckers. Pp. 296-301 in The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File Publications.

Shackelford, C., R. Brown, R. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Pp. 1-24 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 500. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Eckhardt, L. 2001. "Melanerpes carolinus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 16, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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