For the Birds Radio Program: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Original Air Date: March 28, 2003

Are Red-bellied Woodpeckers becoming more common in the north?

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Twenty-one years ago, the morning after my first Duluth Christmas Bird Count, I looked out onto my birdfeeder and saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker. I was amazed and thrilled—this species is much more often found a hundred miles south of here. The bird only stayed in the feeder a few minutes and then vanished, never to return. This was back in 1981, when there had only been a handful of previous St. Louis County records of Red-bellies—my December 20 sighting is listed in the book of Minnesota bird distribution by Robert Janssen.

It was more than two decades before I saw another Red-belly in my yard. Last May, a female showed up for several days, to my great delight. Then, in November, a female came to the mealworm feeder in my second-story window, where she remained for a few minutes. And now this week a female turned up in the same feeder again for a few happy moments. Meanwhile, there have been two other occasions in the past two years that I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers in St. Louis County. But even though they’ve been so rare in the Duluth area, there have been a few winters when my mother-in-law had one for an entire season in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Like cardinals, this lovely species is advancing northward.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the most poorly-named birds in the world. Although most individuals do have a bit of a pinkish stain on their belly feathers, it’s far from vivid red, and their woodpecker habit of clinging to the trunk of a tree makes their belly difficult to see anyway. Both males and females have brilliant red on the back of their head and nape of their neck—males also have a red forehead. But the name Red-headed Woodpecker was already taken by a woodpecker whose entire head is red. Both sexes have a cool zebra-striped black and white back—I wish they could have been named for that.

In addition to their typical woodpecker diet of insects, Red-bellies eat a lot of nuts, fruit and seeds, and are as likely to be spotted in a sunflower seed feeder as they are in a suet feeder. They also like cracked corn and acorns, and sometimes come to the oranges set out for orioles. Mine flew right into my window feeder—I don’t know if she discovered it on her own or if she had noticed my chickadees and nuthatches flying in. But whatever it was, it made me wonderfully happy.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have become more common, not just in the northern areas they seem to be spreading into but also within their traditional range. In many places they’ve even become more common than Hairy Woodpeckers. Meanwhile, the Red-headed Woodpecker is getting much rarer. Both species have problems with starlings stealing their nest cavities, but Red-headed Woodpeckers are also killed in huge numbers by automobiles as they swoop at car height across roads between stands of oak trees. Fortunately, Red-bellied Woodpeckers fly high enough that they are seldom killed by cars. The world is a happier place for their being here, and my life is a happier one whenever I see one.