Red-bellied Woodpecker

Melanerpes carolinus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 15, 2019
  • Karl E. Miller, David L. Leonard Jr., Clifford E. Shackelford, Raymond E. Brown, and Richard N. Conner

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the Red-bellied Woodpecker.
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A medium-sized woodpecker. Males have red forehead, crown, and nape. The actual “red belly” is limited to a small portion of the ventral region between the tarsi and is difficult to observe in the field.

© terence zahner , New York , United States , 5 January 2018
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Females have red only on the nape. Adults have only one plumage (Definitive Basic) which remains the same throughout the year.

© Heather Burns , New Hampshire , United States , 4 May 2018

Conspicuous and pugnacious, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is common throughout the eastern United States and especially ubiquitous in the southeastern coastal plain, including Florida. In the early 1900s, the species began to expand its range northward and westward, and vagrants have been found as far west as eastern Oregon. The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s broad diet and general habitat requirements (1), its use of bird feeders (2, 3), and its response to tree planting (4) and climate change (5, 6) are contributing to its range expansion. Most populations are resident year-round, although individuals occupying northern areas may retreat south during cold winters (7).

A habitat generalist extraordinaire, the Red-bellied Woodpecker uses a wide range of habitats ranging from tropical hammocks and mangroves to northern deciduous forests, from forested wetlands to xeric pine forests, and both undisturbed and human modified landscapes, including urban areas. It seldom excavates for insects—instead, it forages opportunistically for a wide range of food items depending on the season, including fruit, hard mast, seeds, arboreal arthropods, and small vertebrates. Unlike other more specialized members of its genus, the Red-bellied Woodpecker caches food items less frequently and only rarely catch insects on the wing. Its skull morphology is more similar to other zebra-backed woodpeckers, formerly in the genus Centurus, than Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), Acorn Woodpecker (M. formicivorus), or Lewis’s Woodpecker (M. lewis) (8).

The Red-bellied Woodpecker consumes a wide variety of fruit (9) and its affinity for fruit crops, particularly oranges, is reflected by colloquial names such as the “orange borer” and “orange sapsucker.” Another common colloquial name is “red-headed woodpecker” by virtue of the male’s prominent red crown and nape.

Cavities excavated by the Red-bellied Woodpecker in dead or dying wood provide shelter and nest sites for a variety of other vertebrate species. At the same time, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a well-known predator on the eggs and nestlings of a variety of open-cup and cavity nesting birds (10). Like other generalist species that benefit from human alteration of natural habitats, the Red-bellied Woodpecker may compete with species of management concern. For example, the Red-bellied Woodpecker commonly displaces Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) from foraging locations (11) and can aggressively compete with that species for breeding and roosting cavities (12, 13, 14).

Many aspects of the life history of the Red-bellied Woodpecker have been well studied, though nutrition, physiology, and seasonal movements remain little studied.

Recommended Citation

Miller, K. E., D. L. Leonard Jr., C. E. Shackelford, R. E. Brown, and R. N. Conner (2019). Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.