Adults are strikingly tri-colored, with a black back and tail and a red head and neck. Their underparts are mainly white. The wings are black with white secondary remiges. Adult males and females are identical in plumage. Juveniles have very similar markings, but have an all grey head. While red-bellied woodpeckers have some bright red on the backs of their necks and heads, red-headed woodpeckers have a much deeper red that covers their entire heads and necks, as well as a dramatically different overall plumage pattern.
According to an article published in Ibis, the availability of food affects the coloration of feathers in nestlings. The article focused on the correlation between melanin spots and carotenoid-based coloration on the wings of nestlings with food stress via indirect manipulation of brood size. The article found that there was a positive correlation between the quality of the nestlings’ diet and T-cell-mediated immune response. T-cell-mediated immune response was found to be positively correlated with brightness of pigmentation in flight feathers, but not related to melanin spot intensity.