In these days when so many bird species are being afflicted by habitat loss, climate change, disease, environmental toxins, competition from invasive species, or other afflictions, it’s nice to be able to occasionally write about a species whose numbers and range are actually increasing. Even more so when it is a charismatic bird, colorful and with a big personality. So let’s take a look at the red-bellied woodpecker.
For now, though, don’t get your hopes up on this bird’s name. Ornithologists have a perverse habit of naming birds after obscure characteristics, and the red belly is People’s Exhibit A. Adults generally have red bellies – sort of. It is a pale wash rarely visible in the field and is said to be absent from immatures. Perhaps it would be better to use this bird’s formal species name, Carolinus, and call it the Carolina woodpecker: While its range extends well beyond the Carolinas, it can at least be said that the heart of this woodpecker’s range is the southeastern United States lies
Worse still, one of the truly visible field markers often leads to this bird being mistaken for a close relative. Sporting a rich red crown and nape, male red bellies are often reported by novice breeders as red-headed woodpeckers, a certifiable hotline bird in Massachusetts, having a full red head as an adult. In female red bellies, the red nape is present but the crown is pale.
Snafus naming notwithstanding, the fire-bellied woodpecker shows no shortage of distinguishing features. In addition to the partially red head, this species has heavy black and white stripes on the back and wings, as well as a leathery chest and bulbous abdomen. In flight, this species displays conspicuous white spots in its primaries or outer flight feathers: combined with the short tail and the undulating, fluttering and gliding flight typical of woodpeckers, these spots form an effective field marker.
This is a noisy species, often making a rolling “Querrrr” call or a harsh note that sounds like “chug”. I often hear the species before I see it, and given the distinctive quality of its sounds, this is a bird that even beginners can easily identify by sound.
Originally, the fire-bellied woodpecker may have been fairly common in New England. But given its preference for deciduous forests, this species fared poorly with European settlement, when vast tracts of forest were replaced by farmland and pastures. The species was reportedly rare in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century, a situation that lasted for more than a hundred years.
But the gradual regrowth of forests on abandoned farms eventually reversed the trend: By 1990, Massachusetts’ population was really increasing. I remember seeing my first red-bellied in a red maple swamp in Concord around 1995, when the species was already fairly well established in warmer parts of the state: the lower Connecticut River Valley and the Cape and Islands.
Today the species has spread almost everywhere except in the highest elevations of Berkshire County. And this bird has continued its spread north into the Marine Provinces, where it will no doubt become more common. I assume that on the vineyard the red-bellied woodpecker is still outnumbered by the widespread downy woodpecker. But given the former’s loud calls and bold demeanor, the red-bellied woodpecker may be the woodpecker you’re most likely to notice on any given day.
Its success in the vineyard is certainly due in part to its penchant for oak trees: the abundant acorns of the vineyard’s dominant tree species are a reliable source of food, and our middle-aged oak forest appears to contain many nest cavities that are of the right size for this woodpecker. (Birds in the Southeast evidently show more preference for pine forests than New England individuals.) But this is also a species that benefits from human behavior: Red bellies adapt easily to human activity, and their rather unsavory fondness for sunflower seed makes them enthusiastic customers most bird feeders. The species is also notorious for drinking the juice of oranges (just like orioles love to do) and eats a variety of other fruits and berries. Especially during the breeding season, when protein-rich diets become critical for egg production or nutrition of growing offspring, the redbelly eats a wide variety of insects and other arthropods.
Like other cavity-nesting birds, the fire-bellied woodpecker suffers from competition for nesting sites from the non-native house sparrow and the European starling. I’ve seen these two nesting red bellies evicted in my neighborhood, with the starling probably being the biggest threat. But displaced red bellies seem to have a knack for quickly finding another suitable nesting hole. And their abundance in a variety of habitats suggests competition for nest sites is a threat they’re fairly well equipped to deal with.
Although its common name may be false advertising, the fire-bellied woodpecker is a well-established member of the Vineyard bird community. Wherever you live, with a little attention and maybe a sunflower seed bribe, you’re likely to find one visiting your backyard.