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These Woodpeckers Often Confused, But They Don't Look Alike

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

Unlike many cases of mistaken animal identification, red-headed woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers don't actually look alike. The confusion between these two woodpeckers comes from their names. That’s because the name red-headed woodpecker would be an appropriate name for both birds.

A red-bellied woodpecker (left) and a red-headed woodpecker. (Photos via Shutterstock)

Adding to the confusion: the red bellies of red-bellied woodpeckers aren't easy to see. Because of this, red-bellied woodpeckers are often incorrectly referred to as red-headed woodpeckers.

While the red heads of these two birds is what causes confusion, they do have some differences. Red-headed woodpeckers have entirely red heads, and the shade is a deep, crimson red. Red-bellied woodpeckers have red patches on the top and back of their heads, and it's a lighter shade of red.

Beyond their red heads, both woodpeckers are otherwise black and white, but with very different patterns. Red-headed woodpeckers have pure white bellies and black backs and wings with large white patches. Their stark appearance has led to such nicknames as flying checkerboard, jellycoat and flag board.


Words to know

Cavity: An empty space within a solid object.

Crest: A comb or tuft of feathers, fur or skin on the head of a bird or other animal.

Crimson: A rich, deep red color.

Stark: Severe or bare in appearance.

Suet: Animal fat that has been formed into hard cakes, balls or other shapes and often includes seeds, peanut butter or dried fruit. This is a great food for birds when they need more calories to maintain their body heat and energy levels in the winter.


Red-bellied woodpeckers have black and white stripes on their backs and wings. Their bellies are a creamy white with pale reddish patches. The faint red patches on their bellies can sometimes be covered with white, making this feature even less visible.

Both red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers live across the eastern United States. They both prefer wooded habitats. They also both typically build their nests in dead trees or dead wood. Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes use the same nesting cavity for many years, but that's not common among woodpeckers or birds in general.

Both of these woodpeckers eat a combination of plant and animal matter. Red-bellied woodpeckers eat a lot of insects, while red-headed woodpeckers eat mostly seeds, nuts and fruits. Red-bellied woodpeckers are more likely to visit bird feeders, especially in winter. They are most likely to visit feeders stocked with peanuts, suet and sunflower seeds. Red-headed woodpeckers don’t often visit bird feeders, but they do sometimes visit feeders stocked with suet in the winter.

These two woodpeckers aren't the only ones we see locally that have red heads. Pileated woodpeckers have bright red crests, and male downy and hairy woodpeckers have a small red patch on the back of their heads. Northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers also have small red patches on their heads.

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