Red-bellied woodpeckers are medium-sized forest birds found mainly in the eastern United States. Their common name is somewhat misleading, as the most prominent red part of their plumage is on the head. Adult birds are mainly light gray on the face and underparts; they have black and white barred patterns on their back, wings, and tail. Males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape; females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The reddish tinge on the belly that gives the bird its name is difficult to see in field identification. Read Pritish Kumar Halder’s article, in which he discusses Red-bellied woodpeckers.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are found in the eastern United States, ranging as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada. They are non’migratory and usually inhabit deciduous forests near rivers and streams. These birds can also be found in plantations, gardens, groves, and urban areas.
Adults are mainly light gray on the face and underparts; they have black and white barred patterns on their back, wings and tail. Adult males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape; females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The reddish tinge on the belly that gives the bird its name is difficult to see in field identification. They are 22.85 to 26.7 cm (9.00 to 10.51 in) long, have a wingspan of 38 to 46 cm (15 to 18 in), and weigh from 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g).
Red-bellied woodpeckers are noisy birds, and have many varied calls. Calls have been described as sounding like churr-churr-churr or thrraa-thrraa-thrraa with an alternating br-r-r-r-t sound. Males tend to call and drum more frequently than females, but both sexes call. The drum sounds like 6 taps. Often, these woodpeckers “drum” to attract mates. They tap on hollow trees, and even on aluminum roofs, metal guttering and transformer boxes in urban environments, to communicate with potential partners. Babies have a high-pitched begging call of pree-pree-pree. They will continue to give a begging call whenever they see their parents for a while after fledging.
Habits and Lifestyle
Red-bellied woodpeckers are diurnal and generally solitary birds. Most of the time they spend searching for insects on tree trunks. They also climb among branches picking berries and nuts and sometimes may fly to catch insects in the air. Red-bellied woodpeckers use their bill for foraging as a chisel drilling into bark or probing cracks on the trunk of trees.
In this manner, they are able to pull out beetles and other insects from the tree with the help of their long tongue. They also store food by hiding it behind bark or deep in cracks of a tree. Red-bellied woodpeckers are noisy birds and have many varied calls. Their common calls have been described as sounding like ‘churr-churr-churr’ or ‘thrraa-thrraa-thrraa’ with an alternating ‘br-r-r-r-t’ sound.
Males tend to call and drum more frequently than females, but both sexes call. Often, Red-bellied woodpeckers “drum” to attract mates. They tap on hollow trees, and even on aluminum roofs, metal guttering, and transformer boxes in urban environments, to communicate with potential partners. Chicks have a high-pitched begging call of ‘pree-pree-pree’. They often give a begging call whenever they see their parents even for a while after fledging.
Diet and Nutrition
Red-bellied woodpeckers are omnivores and eat insects, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
As with all animals, foraging becomes an important role in an animal’s ability to survive and reproduce. The red-bellied woodpecker expresses foraging behavior by catching or storing food. The woodpecker uses its bill for foraging as a chisel drilling into bark or probing cracks on trunk of trees.
In this manner, the red-bellied woodpecker is able to pull out beetles and other insects from the tree with the help of its long tongue.
This behavior is also seen for storing food from other animals by hiding food behind bark or deep in cracks of a tree. According to studies from Williams 1975, Breitwisch 1977, and Batzil 1979, the red-bellied woodpecker spent 20% to 69% foraging on dead or decaying trees. In addition, Williams 1975, Breitwisch 1977, and Batzil 1979 observed red-bellied woodpecker 80% gleaning and probing and 10% excavating on trees in South Florida pine habitat. The red-bellied woodpecker relies on snags or dying trees for foraging and nesting.
The red-bellied woodpecker is a major predator of the invasive emerald ash borer in the U.S. Midwest, removing up to 85 percent of borer larvae in a single infested ash tree. The red-bellied woodpecker has also been observed, on occasions, foraging on the ground amongst groups of Northern Flicker woodpeckers.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are monogamous and form pairs. They are territorial during the nesting season and breed once per year. In early May, Red-bellied woodpeckers begin breeding activities by drumming patterns; such as slow taps followed by short rapid drumming. The birds also use vocal signals to attract and communicate with potential mates. They make a low ‘grr, grr’ sound from the start of courtship and until the end of the breeding season. Red-bellied woodpeckers nest in the decayed cavities of dead trees, old stumps, or in live trees that have softer wood such as elms, maples, or willows; both sexes assist in digging nesting cavities.
Areas around nest sites are marked with drilling holes to warn others away. The female lays 3-8 eggs and both parents incubate them for 12-14 days. The chicks are altricial at hatching; they are blind, naked, and helpless. They usually fledge at 24 to 26 days of age and remain approximately 27 weeks in their natal area after fledging. In some cases, Red-bellied woodpeckers may return to their natal area for breeding depending on predation levels and food resources.
There are no known major threats facing the Red-bellied woodpecker at present.
According to the All About Birds resource, the total breeding population of the Red-bellied woodpecker is around 10 million birds. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.
Red-bellied woodpeckers control the populations of various insect species that they eat and in turn, they provide food for their predators. By excavating cavities, these birds also play an important role in the forest communities for other species as well. For example, other animals such as squirrels and bats use these cavities as shelter.
Fun Facts for Kids
- The male Red-bellied woodpecker takes the initiative in locating a nest hole. He will then seek approval from his female mate by mutual tapping.
- The female Red-bellied woodpecker accepts the nesting cavity by completing the excavation and entering the nest hole.
- Red-bellied woodpeckers are very territorial and defend their nests and young aggressively; the birds may directly attack predators that come near the nest.
- When approached by a predator, Red-bellied woodpeckers either hide from the predator or harass it with alarm calls.
- During the mating season Red-bellied woodpeckers often rapidly peck on aluminum gutters of houses to produce a loud noise in order to attract females.