Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker. © Patricia Velte

There are a number of things you may observe when you first encounter the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), but most likely you will not see the red belly.  There is no more than a faint wash of red on the lower belly, and it is quite hard to see.  It is a lot easier to see with the bird in hand, but still there is not much red there.

Sutton stated that the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a “resident virtually throughout state.  Favored habitat bottom-land woods; common in towns” (Oklahoma Birds, 1967).  Red-belly distribution covers most of theU.S.from wooded parts of the Great Plains eastward to theAtlantic Ocean. “The current range [of the Red-belly] reflects a northward and westward expansion in the past half century,” with the northward expansion “due to maturing northeastern forests and backyard bird feeding,” and the westward expansion “occurring mostly along wooded river bottoms extending westward through the plains, and due to maturing urban tree plantings” (Reinking, D.L., 2004, Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas).  On this species expansion northward, I suspect global climatic changes also may now be a factor.

Food items of the Red-belly are interesting for their diversity—many insects, fruits, nuts and even small vertebrates.  C. E. Bendire said that “its food consists of about equal proportions of animal and vegetable matter, and it feeds considerably on the ground.  Insects, like beetles, ants, grasshopper, different species of flies and larvae are eaten by them as well as acorns, beechnuts, pine seeds, juniper berries, wild grapes, blackberries, strawberries, pokeberries, palmetto and sour-gum berries, cherries and apples.  In the south it has acquired a liking for the sweet juice of oranges and feeds to some extent on them” (1895.  Life histories of North American birds.  U.S.Nat. Mus. Spec. Bull. 3).   For those of you who use oranges for feeder birds in the winter, you might try—in the summer—slipping an orange slice or 2 into your suet feeder for Red-bellies to see if they “bite.”  “The Red-bellies also “eat small vertebrates including lizards, snakes, frogs, fish, nestling birds, and bird eggs” (  Learning that small vertebrates were food items was quite a surprise to me; although this feeding behavior may not be frequent, it may be one reason why the Red-belly favors bottom-land forests, where small vertebrates are relatively common.

Sutton said that “many nest holes [of the Red-belly] are appropriated by Starlings:  in 1959, in attempt to help woodpeckers hold nest fourteen feet up in a maple, seventeen Starlings were shot [by Dr. Sutton], but Starlings won out” (Sutton, 1967).  Doc was not sure if the Starlings that harassed the Red-bellies were consistently trying to use the Red-belly nest for their own nesting cavity, or if the Starlings were sometimes just trying to get a roost hole.  In spite of intense competition at some nests from Starlings, the Red-belly seems to be doing well over most of its range.  Between 1966-2000 Breeding Bird Survey data for the Red-belly “show an increase of 0.6 percent per year rangewide…but no conclusive trend inOklahoma…” (Reinking, 2004).

In southwestern Oklahoma, a close relative of the Red-belly—the Golden-fronted Woodpecker—is found.  Field marks that can be used to differentiate the 2 are mostly on the upper surface of the head.  The Red-belly male is red on the top of its head—from bill through nape (back of neck)—while the female Red-belly has a red nape and a spot of red just behind the bill.  The Golden-fronted male and female, on the other hand, have a golden nape and golden spot just behind the bill, and between these 2 golden spots the male Golden-fronted has a red crown. Both the Red-belly and the Golden-fronted have a “zebra” back and the 2 species are known to interbreed.