The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a regular visitor to bird feeders and is easily identified by the black and white barred pattern on its back and the red patch on the back of the head. The name confuses many people because the "red" on the belly is faint and very difficult to see. In Tennessee it is often mistakenly called a Red-headed Woodpecker, especially in areas where the true Red-headed Woodpecker (a bird with a completely red head) is uncommon. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is found only in the eastern United States and is most common in the southeastern states. While not considered migratory, birds at the northern edge of the range may move farther south in very cold winters.
Description: This medium-sized woodpecker has red on the back of the head and neck, a black and white barred back, and a white rump. The face and underparts are pale gray, and the belly is washed with a light red (difficult to see). The male and female can be distinguished by the extent of the red hood. In males the red extends from the base of the bill to the back of the neck; in females the red starts at the top of the head and extends to the back of the neck.
Weight: 2.2 oz
Voice: The call is a trill, along with short chupp chupp chupp notes that often accelerate towards the end.
- Red-headed Woodpecker has a completely red head, neck, face, and throat; the back has bold black and white patches with no barring.
Habitat: Lives in a variety of dry or damp forests (deciduous or pine) and in suburban areas.
Diet: The Red-bellied Woodpecker seldom excavates wood for insects. Instead, depending on the season, it forages opportunistically on a wide range of fruit, mast, seeds, and arboreal arthropods. It occasionally eats lizards, tree frogs, small fish, nestling birds and eggs, and frequently visits bird feeders, especially suet feeders.
Nesting and reproduction: Red-bellied Woodpeckers maintain their territories throughout the year. Nest building begins in late March or early April.
Clutch Size: Usually 4 eggs, with a range of 3 to 6.
Incubation: Both adults incubated the eggs for 12 to 14 days.
Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which leave the nest at 24 to 27 days.
Nest: The male does most of the excavation of the nest in hole, which is usually placed in a dead tree or dead limb. Eggs are laid on wood chips left from excavation. The average nest height in Tennessee is 27 feet.
Status in Tennessee: The Red-bellied Woodpecker is an abundant year round resident throughout the state and occupies all types of low-elevation forest. Their numbers are stable or slightly increasing.
Dynamic map of Red-bellied Woodpecker eBird observations in Tennessee
- The Red-bellied Woodpecker is able to compete against other woodpeckers for nest holes, but it is often evicted by the European Starling. In some areas, half of all Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting cavities are taken over by starlings.
- Red-bellied Woodpeckers will store food in cracks and crevices of trees and fence posts.
- The tongue of the male Red-bellied Woodpecker has a wider tip than the female, and the bill is slightly longer. This may allow the male to obtain food that is unavailable to the female and thereby divide up the resources in one area.
- Red-bellied Woodpeckers are attracted to noises that resonate. The male may tap loudly on metal gutters, aluminum roofs, and even on vehicles to attract a mate.
- The oldest record of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the wild was 12 years 1 month old.
Obsolete English Names: zebra woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker
Best places to see in Tennessee: Found in most forests at lower elevations statewide.
For more information:
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Shackelford, C.E., R.E. Brown and R.N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), The Birds of North America, No. 500 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.