Will the real red head stand up?
The ever debonair Red-headed woodpecker has a totally red head and distinctive black and white checkerboard body. (Cori Brown photo)

There’s a whole lot of pecking going on in our yard these days. Despite the crazy, rainy weather we’ve had, Mother Nature blessed us with many hammering woodpecker kids, especially the Red-bellied variety.

Red-Bellied? Which one is that? Don’t I mean red head? Well, yes and no. That’s because there are three different woodpeckers in our area this time of year with lots of red on their heads.


So who’s the real red head and who are the imposters? Let’s start with that red-bellied guy, who as far as I’m concerned, has the most ambiguous name of the three contenders.

Whomever named this bird must have had a bit too much blush wine to drink because that’s exactly how I think about him. His belly is an ever so slight hint of red like a nice bottle of Beringer’s White Zinfandel.

Good luck trying to see that belly, too, because it’s almost always too busy hugging trees most of the time.

On the other hand, the broad red stripe (emphasis on stripe) on its head is a dead giveaway for a Red-bellied woodpecker. The handsome male sports a bold streak from his beak to the base of his neck. The female’s streak is just as brilliant but a bit shorter with its start at the back of the head to the base of the neck.

Wouldn’t it have been easier just to call this handsome bird the red-striped woodpecker instead of all that silly belly business?

Maybe we need a write-in campaign to rename it. What would you, loyal readers, call it?

There are a few other clues to help identify this nifty, medium sized bird, including some very loud, vocal calls.

Listen for frequent “kwirr” or “churr” sounds in the spring and summer. Look for slivery black and white bars adorning its back, making it quite striking and unmistakable. It’s a very common feeder bird, too, setting it apart from our other candidates, who tend to be shyer.

This female Pileated woodpecker has the classic fiery red crest but lacks the red cheek stripe only found on males.
This female Pileated woodpecker has the classic fiery red crest but lacks the red cheek stripe only found on males. (Cori Brown photo)

Our next imposter may have red on his head, but his impressive stature is what ranks him high on any birdwatcher’s list. It’s none other than the Pileated woodpecker, made even more famous by Woody Woodpecker, a cartoon character created in 1940.

The word “pileated” means cap or crest and that’s exactly where the flaming red color stands out on this bird. The stunning crest goes along with a big wingspan of 26 to 30 inches and a height of 16 to 19 inches.

This crow-sized bird is hard to spot in the woods, even with its head-on-fire crest. As I mentioned in a previous article, it took me two years to get a decent snapshot of it.

Pileated woodpeckers have beautiful white underwings framed with deep black edges that make them look like angels when they fly. The males also have red cheek stripes to match their showy crests.

For its size, it is a surprisingly quiet flyer, which makes it all the more challenging to see as it flits from tree to tree.

Look for large oblong holes in tree trunks for telltale signs of its presence, along with some raucous calls and drums.


If you hear “wuk wuk wuk” or bone rattling drills, you know a Pileated woodpecker is in your neck of the woods.

Finally, here is the real deal — the true Red-headed woodpecker. This chap’s entire head is a beautiful, deep satin red with large blocks of black and white colors throughout the rest of his body.

A Red-bellied woodpecker shows off its blush while eating suet, one of its favorite foods.
A Red-bellied woodpecker shows off its blush while eating suet, one of its favorite foods. (Cori Brown photo)

Maybe artist Piet Mondrian had the Red-headed woodpecker in mind when he painted his world renowned and fabulously expensive color block art. Needless to say, it’s a lot cheaper and much more thrilling for me to see this living, breathing masterpiece on the wing.

This dapper bird has been the toughest one for me to track down. I’ve only seen it a few times and not at all in our own backyard. He is one of a handful of woodpeckers that stores food, including live grasshoppers. He tucks them so tightly into crevices that they can’t get out!

If you do spot one, feel lucky, because their populations are in steep decline due to habitat loss. They favor open wood lots in agricultural areas, which is usually where I see them. Keep a sharp eye out though because they move quickly, sprinting from tree to tree.

Once you see the Red-headed woodpecker, you’ll never mistake him for his imposter cousins. He is like the James Bond of woodpeckers with his suave, immaculate looks and clever feeding techniques.

When your neighbor brags that he has a red-headed woodpecker in his yard, be ready with this cheat sheet to make sure he’s got it right. At the end of the day, all of these woodpeckers are delightful additions to anyone’s yard, but only one can be the true Red-headed woodpecker.