What’s Black and White and Red all Over? The Red-bellied Woodpecker

            Since I moved into my Tallahassee home 5 years ago, the Kwirr calls of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) have haunted me. My neighborhood is a dense combination of old oak trees and pine (Figures 1 and 2). Looking at a satellite image it appears to be a forest. This is their preferred environment for insects and foraging (Shackelford 2000). I have occasionally spotted the Red-bellied Woodpecker banging away in my backyard. They are hard to miss with their red cap and zebra striped back (Figure 3). The red belly is difficult to notice while watching the bird, since they tend to grasp on to the side of the trunk and face the tree (Reller 1972). A lot of people tend to confuse the Red-bellied Woodpecker with the Red-headed Woodpecker due to the red on the head. However there is a large difference between the two, the Red-headed Woodpecker has a completely red hood, and no white striping on it’s back. You can find both of these birds in the same territories coexisting (Reller 1972). The Red-bellied makes cavity nests in the dead limbs of living trees and gathers food from the branches and trunks of the trees, whether that be insects, fruits, nuts, or eggs (Table 1). The Red-headed Woodpecker only nests in dead trees and forages on the ground except for mid-day when it catches bugs (Ingold 1989). The Red-bellied Woodpecker is located in the eastern United States (Figure 4).

Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be aggressive and territorial. The level of aggression changes during breeding and non-breeding season. During the breeding season, they are more aggressive, call more, and knock on trees more. They are also territorial within the species; each family has their own territory to protect and will “fight” another male to prove it (Shackelford 2000). The breeding season is in the spring and non-breeding is fall and winter. During this time they tend to eat fewer insects and hoard nuts. They wedge the nut or seed into a crevice in a tree and hammer it open. The Red-bellied Woodpecker also has an unusually long tongue, which is used to “lick” the bugs out of tree limbs (Kilham1963).

Since it is currently non-breeding season, I have been having a harder time spotting the woodpecker in the trees. I went to a park with a denser canopy to try and observe it but I couldn’t locate the bird even though I kept hearing the call. Since they are territorial there wasn’t an abundance of them (Reller 1972). I decided to go home and try and find some there. I was in the driveway working on the car with my boyfriend when I heard that distinct kwirr call (Figure 5). I got excited and hopped onto the roof of the house to try and get a better view. Again I couldn’t spot the bird in the trees. Then it hit me. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are territorial, so if I play a call on my phone one might come and protect its territory. Even though it was non-breeding season I decided to give it a shot. It was an amazing sight. I ended up seeing a total of four Red-bellied Woodpeckers! The first one flew over and knocked on a tree and did a quick call (Figure 1). I responded with a similar call. Then behind me I heard another, they were trying to find this mysterious intruder. They kept flying above me in quick bursts from tree to tree. There was no additional knocking and there was a more territorial cha call (Shackelford 2000). I even spotted a juvenile, in a nearby tree. I identified it due to it’s lack of red and behavior of making the same calls. I also identified a male and female by the red on the cap vs. the red on the nape. The females only have a red nape and the males have a red cap and nape. They were swooping across the sky so fast and determined. I could tell I was frustrating the birds because two males ended up swooping at each other in the tree. I decided to stop calling and just observe them more. They were able to hang on to the tiniest branches, at times upside down. They would also climb up the side of the tree and then quickly jet to the next tree over. After a bit they all dispersed and I went back inside. After this encounter I read an article published by David Sibley about how to correctly use voice recording to attract specific species. The article states you shouldn’t use a clip longer than 30 seconds at a time and to determine which calls and in what order you use them before you start. It says to wait five minutes in between calls, I didn’t do this part correctly, which is probably why I got such an aggressive response (Sibley 2011). It also says to be considerate to other birders. This was of no concern to me since I was at my house and there were no other birders on my roof. It is important to know these playback guidelines to prevent upsetting the birds.

Over the next couple days I continued to go on the roof and try to make some more observations. One of the days I spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. There were three of them but I focused in on one. It was pretty close, doing short little hammers on a thin vine on an oak tree. Then out of nowhere a Red-bellied Woodpecker comes diving in swooping at the sapsucker. The sapsucker moved to another tree, then boom! The red-belly attacked again, and this continued until the sapsucker left. The Red-bellied Woodpecker hung out in the tree, not doing very much for an additional 5-10 minutes, then left. As soon as it disappeared the Yellowed-bellied Sapsucker returned and continued to feed. The aggression displayed may have resulted from the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrating and this area not being it’s year round territory. In central Florida, the Red-bellied Woodpecker occurs year round while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mostly occurs in the fall and winter (Leonard and Stout 2006). I have also spotted Hairy Woodpeckers in the same tree but the red-bellied don’t seem to mind their presence. This could be due to occasionally nesting in the same tree. There have also been reports of Red-bellied Woodpeckers being nest predators, stealing eggs or nestlings. There are many written accounts of Red-bellied Woodpeckers stealing eggs from flycatchers, buntings, warblers, and gnatcatchers (Hazler et-al 2006).

Overall the Red-bellied Woodpecker is an exciting species to watch. They swoop, hop, climb and fly short distances, which makes them easy to keep an eye on. They interact with other woodpecker species as well as with each other. They eat a variety of things and respond to recorded calls. I will continue to keep an ear out and maybe one day I’ll get lucky and spot a cavity nest in an old dead branch and get to observe them during breeding season.


Shackelford, C. E., Brown, R. E. and Conner, R. N. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). In The Birds of North America 500. (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.


This paper discusses everything you need to know about a Red-bellied Woodpecker. From breeding, nesting, foraging, calls, to interspecific and intraspecific interactions.


Kilham, L. 1963. Food Storing of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The Wilson Bulletin 75:227-334


This paper discussed the feeding habits and food storage of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in breeding and non breeding seasons as well as interspecific food competition and tree sharing


Reller, A. W. Aspects of behavioral ecology of Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. 1972. The American Midland Naturalist. 88:270-290


This paper compares the Red-headed Woodpecker with the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It discusses nesting, territory, coexistence, and competition


Ingold, D. J. Nesting phenology and competition for nest sites among Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and European Starlings. 1989. The Auk 106:209-217 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4087714

This paper compares the interspecific competition between the Red-headed Woodpecker vs Red-bellied Wood pecker, the Red-headed vs the European Starlings, and the Red-bellied vs the European starlings. The comparisons were about nesting and interactions.


Sibley, D. The Proper Use of Playback in Birding. 2011. Sibley Guides.


This article discussed the procedure of using digital birdcalls or find a specie as well as pros and cons of using calls.


Hazler, K. R. Drumtra, D.E.W. Marshall, M. R. Cooper, R.J. and Hamel, P.B. Common, but commonly overlooked: Red-bellied Woodpeckers as songbird nest predators. 2004. Southeastern Naturalist. 3:467-474


This paper discusses the Red-bellied Woodpecker being a brood predator and stealing eggs from other bird nests.


Leonard, D. L. Jr. and Stout, I.J. Woodpecker use for forested wetlands in central peninsular Florida. 2006. Southeastern Naturalist. 5:621-636


This paper discusses the habitat preference in Central Florida of a variety of Woodpeckers. Red-bellied was the most common and had no preference or migration.



Figure 1 – Personal observation of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in my yard. The smaller box in pink is a zoomed in image.


Figure 2 – Personal observation of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in my yard. The small pink box is the zoomed in image.


Figure 3 - Image of a male Red-bellied Woodpecker. Notice the red cap and nape with the zebra striping. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARed-bellied_Woodpecker_on_tree.jpg

Figure 3 – Image of a male Red-bellied Woodpecker. Notice the red cap and nape with the zebra striping. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARed-bellied_Woodpecker_on_tree.jpg


Table 1 - This is a table comparing the nest location preference of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Red-headed Woodpecker (Reller 1972)

Table 1 – This is a table comparing the nest location preference of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Red-headed Woodpecker (Reller 1972)

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 1.52.11 PM

Figure 4 – Species map of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. The shaded region is the year round range (Shackelford 2000)

Figure 5 - Shackelford 2000. This is a sonogram of a Kwirr call and drumming of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Figure 5 – (Shackelford 2000). This is a sonogram of a Kwirr call and drumming of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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