All About Red-Bellied Woodpeckers

Meet the woodpecker with a puzzling moniker and a big appetite for suet.

Named for the hard-to-see, faint crimson color on their undersides, red-bellied woodpeckers are widespread in the eastern half of the United States. They’re more common in the southern states, but the species is on the move and the breeding range has extended north over the last century.

With zebra-like stripes on their backs and wings, red-bellieds have a few look-alike relatives, such as the gila and golden-fronted woodpeckers of the Southwest. It’s thanks to one distinguishable characteristic—a red head—that these woodpeckers are frequently confused with the less common red-headed woodpecker species, which shows a full head of bold red feathers.

And then there’s the ambiguous red belly that makes many bird-watchers wonder if the person who named this woodpecker was seeing things. It’s only when the light hits the stomach just right that the blush-colored feathers are most noticeable, and you finally see how this flier got its name.

Typical woodpecker features shared by red-bellieds include stiff tails to prop their bodies up against tree trunks, and feet with two toes facing forward and two pointing backward. That foot structure helps them grasp branches and bark as they navigate up and around tree trunks, on the hunt for insects.

photo credit: Carolyn Stuart
photo credit: Carolyn Stuart In autumn, red-bellied woodpeckers store seeds and nuts in cracks in tree bark. They go back to their hiding spots for an easy-to-find meal come winter.

Like many species in the woodpecker family, male and female red-bellieds look slightly different. Males sport full red foreheads, caps and napes, while females have red napes and just a touch of ruby at the base of their bills. Their offspring, however, have plain, nondescript heads with a subdued red hue.

Both parents put in the work to incubate 4 to 6 eggs per clutch, with males often taking the night shift. It’s not uncommon for the pair to aggressively defend their nest against potential predators, including starlings, snakes or even other woodpeckers.

To lure these lively and desirable woodpeckers to your backyard feeding station, serve a variety of their favorite foods. Suet is a must, especially in winter. Sunflower seeds and peanuts are a hit, too. And then sweeten the deal with sugar water, fruit and jelly. As red-bellieds swoop in to your feeders for a snack, listen for the exuberant, guttural quirr quirr quirr chatter. Unlike most bird species, both males and females vocalize throughout the year. The sound is a favorite of many backyard birders. (Read more! The 4 Best Foods for Woodpeckers)

“The bird’s distinctive call announces its presence at our feeders,” says Birds & Blooms reader Stephen Holland of Sandown, New Hampshire. “The unique coloring of a red head and striped back makes it stand out in all seasons.”

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.