SIB “Bird of the Week” – Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker – Melanerpes carolinus
Length:  9.25″; Wingspan: 16″; Weight: 2.2 oz.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - Ed Konrad
Red-bellied Woodpecker – Ed Konrad

On Friday, we asked if you knew this bird sound – the Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This bird is our most conspicuous woodpecker heard around the island (although the downy is more numerous).  It’s most common call is a shrill, rolling kwirr or churr given by both sexes. You might also hear a gruff, coughing cha cha cha sounding through the woods, usually a contact call between mates, or a throaty growl exchanged when birds are close together.  We hear them frequently throughout Seabrook Island, but especially as we golf on both golf courses.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is named for a small wash of reddish-orange feathers on the belly. Their back is narrowly barred black and white. It has a red forehead, cap and nape around pale cheeks. The female’s red is confined to the nape. Juveniles may lack red on the head. In flight there is a white rump with dark outer tail feathers. Their strikingly barred backs and gleaming red caps make them an unforgettable sight – just resist the temptation to call them Red-headed Woodpeckers, a somewhat rarer species that’s mostly black on the back with big white wing patches.

Omnivorous, Red-bellied Woodpeckers feed on insects, acorns, fruit seeds, and nuts. In the south they may favor oranges. They may also usurp sapsucker wells. They hoard nuts, fruit, and insects. They may occasionally feed on the ground. They will come to a feeder for suet and sunflower seeds.  A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.

Look for Red-bellied Woodpeckers hitching along branches and trunks of medium to large trees, picking at the bark surface more often than drilling into it. Like most woodpeckers, these birds have a characteristic undulating flight pattern.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers lay their eggs on the bed of wood chips left over after excavating their nest cavity. Nest holes are 8 to 12 inches deep, with a cylindrical living space of roughly 3.5 by 15 inches in dead trees (hardwoods or pines), dead limbs of live trees, and fence posts. The same pair may nest in the same tree year after year, but typically excavate a new cavity each year, often placing the new one beneath the previous year’s.

A group of woodpeckers have many collective nouns, including a “descent,” “drumming” and “gatling” of woodpeckers.

(See the range map following the photographs below.)

If you would like to learn more about this bird visit:

Submitted by Judy Morr & photos by Ed Konrad and from Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

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