Everything You Need to Know About Red-Bellied Woodpeckers

Meet the woodpecker with a puzzling moniker and a big appetite for suet. Here's how to attract and identify red-bellied woodpeckers.

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.

What Do Red-Bellied Woodpeckers Look Like?

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. This 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. Then you finally see how this flier got its name.

Typical woodpecker features 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.

Check out 10 photos of common North American woodpecker species.

red-bellied woodpeckerCourtesy Mary Flores Camacho
Male red-bellied woodpecker eating suet

Nesting Habits

Like many species in the woodpecker family, male and female red-bellieds look slightly different. Males sport full red foreheads, caps and napes. 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.

Next, meet the best bird dads and learn how they help out around the nest.

How to Attract Red-Bellied 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. These are the 4 best foods for woodpeckers.

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.

“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.