Scientific Name: Melanerpes carolinus
Common Name: Red-bellied woodpecker
(Information for this species page was gathered, in part, by Mr. Will Dailey for an assignment in Biology 220M, Spring 2006)
The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is a robin-sized (9 to 10 ½ inches long) bird that is seen very frequently throughout the forests, parks, and suburban yards of Pennsylvania. It is able to live and reproduce in a wide range of habitats and is able to consume a diverse array of foods. It is a consummate ecological generalist able to thrive in many natural and human-modified ecosystems.
The red-bellied woodpecker has a distinctive, black and white, zebra-striped back with matching wings and a large, bright red patch that covers its head and neck. The name “red-bellied” inevitably strikes a casual observer as incredibly inappropriate. “Red-capped” or “red-necked” would seem to be a more apt descriptions of this species. There is, though, a faint reddish tint on the bird’s belly feathers, and it is this, somewhat difficult to observe feature, that gives the bird its name. The red-bellied woodpecker has a long, stout, dark beak well suited for chiseling away at the wood of tree trunks and limbs, and dark red to reddish-brown eyes.
The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the most abundant species of woodpeckers in the forests of Georgia and North and South Carolina. Its population densities in the northern portions of its North American range are less than they are in the south, but it is possible that its numbers are increasing. The breeding range of this species is expanding in the Plains states and across New Mexico possibly in response to increased densities of human planted trees. This species is also moving further up into the northeast possibly in response to more moderate winter conditions induced by climate change and possibly due to the bird’s ability to subsist on bird feeder food supplies through the formerly limiting winter months.
Foods taken by the red-bellied woodpecker include fruit, seeds, nuts, grains, and even tree sap. They also eat a wide range of invertebrates including ants, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, flies, and many types of caterpillars. They also eat small vertebrates including lizards, snakes, frogs, fish, nestling birds, and bird eggs. They vigorously forage on the trunks and large limbs of trees and opportunistically consume any food or prey item they encounter. Their long, sticky tongues are well adapted to both grabbing food and to probing deeply into existing and freshly chiseled cracks in the wood of their trees. Larger prey may be broken up into bite-sized morsels by beating the seized organism against a hard surface. They cache food (like mast, corn, fruit, seeds, and even insects) in cracks and crevices of trees and fence posts. In the winter, these cached food reserves may represent a significant component of the bird’s daily diet (although, as mentioned previously, seed from bird feeders is a very important diet component for red-bellied woodpeckers in the winter).
Many predators can take red-bellied woodpeckers as prey. Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, black snakes, and house cats are some common predators of adult birds. Red-bellied woodpecker nestlings may be eaten by larger woodpeckers (including red-headed and pileated woodpeckers), blue jays, crows, and black snakes. European starlings have also been observed to both eat red-bellied woodpecker nestlings and extirpate the adult birds from their nest cavities.
Mating and Reproduction
Red-bellied woodpeckers form mating pairs in the late winter and nest between March and early May. The species is thought to be monogamous, but new pairs form each season. The mated pair selects their nest site together. Nests are built in cavities carved into tree trunks, large tree limbs, or, sometimes, telephone poles or the wood siding of a house or other type of building. It takes a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers between 7 and 10 days to excavate their nest cavity. After the nest is completed, the female will lay 4 eggs, 1 egg per day, and then both the male and female will participate in the 12 day incubation. Males most commonly are on the nest during the night. After hatching, both parents actively feed and guard the nestlings for the next 3 or 4 weeks until they fledge. After fledging, the young may remain with the parents and continue to be fed and nurtured for up to 10 weeks. In the northern sections of their breeding range, red-bellied woodpeckers typically have a single clutch per season. In the southern portions of their range, though, 2 and sometimes even 3 clutches may be reared per year.
Although the red-bellied woodpecker is not considered a migratory species, there is some movement from the northern to the southern sections of its breeding range in the winter. Some individuals do over-winter in the north (taking advantage of the previously mentioned abundance of food in bird feeders), but many northern individuals also move into milder, southern habitats for the duration of the winter season.
There is some concern that as these very active and aggressive woodpeckers become increasingly abundant in their new, northern habitats, they will displace not only other woodpecker species but also, possibly, other types of birds with which their broad habitat and food preferences might come into competition. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been observed displacing blue jays (a very aggressive species in their own right!) from bird feeders and evicting the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker from their nests. Impacts of this expanding species on flickers, sapsuckers, and downy and hairy woodpeckers should be monitored in the coming decades.