SCORES & OUTDOORS: The return of the red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker, left, and Red-headed woodpecker, right.

by Roland D. Hallee

It has been a while since I’ve seen one, but last week, on a couple of occasions, I saw a red-bellied woodpecker at one of our bird feeders. One had made an appearance a couple of years ago, but I hadn’t seen one recently. Of course, if you know what a red-bellied woodpecker looks like, it is one of the most misnamed creatures on the planet.

The red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, is a medium-sized woodpecker. It breeds mainly in the eastern United States, ranging as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada. Though it has a vivid orange-red crown and nape it is not to be confused with the red-headed woodpecker, a separate species of woodpecker with an entirely red head and neck that sports a solid black back and white belly. The red-bellied earns its name from the pale reddish blush of its lower underside.

Adults are mainly light gray on the face and underparts; they have black and white barred patterns on their back, wings and tail. Adult males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape; females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The reddish tinge on the belly that gives the bird its name is difficult to see in field identification.

Males tend to call and drum more frequently than females, but both sexes call. The drum sounds like 6 taps. Often, these woodpeckers “drum” to attract mates. They tap on hollow trees, and even on aluminum roofs, metal guttering and transformer boxes in urban environments, to communicate with potential partners.

These birds mainly search out arthropods on tree trunks. They may also catch insects in flight. They are omnivores, eating insects, fruits, nuts and seeds. Their breeding habitat is usually deciduous forests. They nest in the decayed cavities of dead trees, old stumps, or in live trees that have softer wood such as elms, maples, or willows; both sexes assist in digging nesting cavities. Areas around nest sites are marked with drilling holes to warn others away.

Though the species is not globally threatened, it depends on large trees for nesting. In areas that are extensively deforested, the birds will sometimes utilize gardens, but for the most part they simply will not be present in any numbers.

In early May, the red-bellied woodpeckers begin breeding activities by drumming patterns; such as, slow taps followed by short rapid drumming. The red-bellied woodpeckers use vocal signals to at­tract and communicate with potential mates. The red-bellied woodpeckers are known to be in monogamous relationships. They have been known to rapidly peck on aluminum gutters of houses to produce a loud noise in order to attract females.

Woodpeckers depend on dead and drying wood for nesting purposes. The male red-bellied woodpecker takes the initiative in locating a nest hole. He will then seek approval from his female mate by mutual tapping. The red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes in trees for nesting and roosting. By excavating cavities, they play an important role in the forest communities for other species as well. For example, species such as squirrels and bats use these cavities as shelter. The female red-bellied woodpecker accepts the nesting hole by completing the excavation and entering the nest hole.

Researchers have documented that red-bellied woodpeckers have the tendency to nest in clear areas with only few trees. Studies have indicated that close canopy areas do not impact the bird’s nesting behavior; however, further studies are needed and are in progress. Red-bellied woodpeckers are territorial during the nesting season and they breed once per year. A pair-breeding woodpecker begins nesting in April or May.

The woodpecker uses its bill for foraging as a chisel drilling into bark or probing cracks on trunk of trees. In this manner, the red-bellied woodpecker is able to pull out beetles and other insects from the tree with the help of its long tongue.

Here’s an important fact. The red-bellied woodpecker is a major predator of the invasive emerald ash borer in the U.S., which has been spotted in Maine, removing up to 85 percent of borer larvae in a single infested ash tree. The red-bellied woodpecker has also been observed, on occasions, foraging on the ground amongst groups of Northern Flicker woodpeckers.

Predators of adult red-bellied woodpeckers include birds of prey such as sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks, black rat snake and house cats. Known predators of nestlings and eggs include red-headed woodpeckers, owls, pileated woodpeckers, eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, gray rat snakes and black rat snakes. When approached by a predator, red-bellied woodpeckers either hide from the predator, or harass it with alarm calls. They defend their nests and young aggressively, and may directly attack predators that come near the nest.

My red-bellied woodpecker just shows up at the feeders and helps himself.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What NHL team last won three Stanley Cups in a row?

Answer can be found here.


Responsible journalism is hard work!
It is also expensive!

If you enjoy reading The Town Line and the good news we bring you each week, would you consider a donation to help us continue the work we’re doing?

The Town Line is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit private foundation, and all donations are tax deductible under the Internal Revenue Service code.

To help, please visit our online donation page or mail a check payable to The Town Line, PO Box 89, South China, ME 04358. Your contribution is appreciated!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *