Call it what you will, but that red-bellied woodpeckers have taken up residence here in northern Minnesota is likely the result of climate change or some other phenomena that are not easily understood. Ten to 15 years ago the sight of this attractive species of woodpecker would have been considered rare. That’s not so much the case today.
My first recorded observation of a red-bellied woodpecker was in Detroit Lakes in 2011, adjacent to the shores of Lake Sallie. Hearing the vocalization first, I immediately knew that I had never heard this particular avian call, yet I also knew that it was “woodpecker-like,” and so I began to search the woodland for the source of the interesting new bird call. Without much searching, I soon saw my first-ever red-bellied woodpecker.
Characterized as a medium-sized bird, red-bellied woodpeckers are about mid-way in size to that of hairy woodpeckers and northern flickers. Their wingspans are about 12 to 16 inches. But what sets them apart from other Minnesota woodpeckers are their striking red caps and their uniquely barred black-and-white backs, hence, “ladder-back.”
Red-bellied woodpeckers are one of six species of North American woodpeckers that share the same genus name, Melanerpes. And of these half dozen birds, only one other of the genus occurs in Minnesota: the red-headed woodpecker, which I recently wrote about. In all, Minnesota is home to nine woodpecker species. Very few states can boast of more species of this interesting group of birds.
The range of red-bellied woodpeckers includes the entire east half of the United States, including much of Minnesota, particularly the southeast and within a line northeast to Duluth. They are found in a wide variety of forest types, including urban woodlands and especially in forested river bottoms. Yet throughout Minnesota’s great northwest, red-bellied woodpeckers remain infrequent visitors to most people’s backyards, although that appears to be changing.
If memory serves me right, about five or six years ago I saw my first red-bellied woodpecker where I live southwest of Bemidji. In a mostly deciduous forested area about 12 miles northeast of Itasca State Park, I heard the distinctive call of the species one spring day near my house. And each year since then, a resident pair, or perhaps descendants of that original pair or altogether unrelated birds, have faithfully nested nearby and have become frequent visitors to my bird feeders and suet.
This spring a pair of “red bellies” are nesting in the same birch snag tree that they or another pair nested in last spring, although in a different cavity. And at this writing, the pair is busily feeding a nest-full of hungry mouths. It’s enjoyable to sit in a chair near the tree and watch the comings and goings of the dutiful parents. Taking turns, each bird visits the cavity with insect meals, sometimes having to wait for a moment for a mate to exit the hole.
The diet of red-bellied woodpeckers is not unlike most other woodpeckers. Soft-bodied insects such as juicy and colorful caterpillars and beetle larvae are choice favorites, especially for nesting pairs tasked with caring for demanding offspring. Indeed, in my observations of the resident pair in my backyard, soft-bodied insects dominate the items each bird brings to the nest cavity. Insects of all kinds are rich sources of protein that are critical to young birds’ growth and development.
Yet other foodstuffs are also readily consumed by red-bellied woodpeckers that include nuts such as acorns, and berries and fruit. As well, nuts and seeds of pine cones are extracted by hungry red-bellies and eaten. Moreover, this species of woodpecker has also been documented as consuming lizards, frogs, small snakes, young nestling birds, and even minnows.
Perhaps it’s no small wonder why red-bellied woodpeckers are widespread, successful, and a species of woodpecker that is growing in population and range extent. Their adaptability is obviously a hallmark of the species.
To possibly attract red-bellied woodpeckers to your backyard bird feeding station, think variety. Plenty of suet, possibly some peanuts, and of course providing a rich supply of black-oil sunflower seeds are a good start. And their penchant for fruit and berries bodes well for both them and the homeowner that has fruit trees such as native hawthorn, nannyberry, dogwood and mountain ash trees, too.
Red-bellied woodpeckers, beautiful as they are and entertaining as they come, are sure to please as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.