All About Red Bellied Woodpeckers

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

What Does a Red Bellied Woodpecker Look Like?

red-bellied woodpeckerCourtesy Linda Hyatt Kranert

With zebra-like stripes on the backs and wings, the red-bellied woodpecker has 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—a hard-to-see, faint crimson color on their undersides. 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. They measure 9-1/4 inches with a wingspan of 16 inches.

Check out 10 photos of common North American woodpecker species.

Male, Female and Juvenile Red Bellied Woodpecker

red bellied woodpecker familyCourtesy Candida Foltz
Female, male and juvenile at a feeder

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 juvenile offspring, however, have plain, nondescript heads with a subdued red hue.

Learn how to tell the difference between downy and hairy woodpeckers.

How to Attract Red Bellied Woodpeckers

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

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 grape jelly. Outside the backyard, they also eat insects, acorns and berries.

These are the 4 best foods for attracting woodpeckers.

Red Bellied Woodpecker Call

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.

Listen to the red-bellied woodpecker’s song.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“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.”

Learn why woodpeckers peck and how to stop it.

Nest and Eggs

baby red bellied woodpeckerCourtesy Tanya Brooks
Baby red bellied woodpecker

The mated pair excavates a nesting cavity in an old stump or tree. Then the female lays four to six white eggs per clutch. Both parents put in the work to incubate the 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.

Meet the best bird dads and learn how they help out around the nest.

Range Map and Habitat

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. Look for these birds in wooded areas and residential areas with plenty of trees and shrubs.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

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Ken Keffer
Professional naturalist and award-winning environmental educator and author Ken Keffer has penned seven books connecting kids and the outdoors. Ken is currently on the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors. Ken was born and raised in Wyoming. He's done a little bit of everything, from monitoring small mammals in Grand Teton National Park to researching flying squirrels in southeast Alaska. Ken enjoys birding, floating on lazy rivers, fly fishing, and walking his dog.