March–April 2023

Minnesota Profile

Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

The species has been expanding its range northward.

Bob Dunlap (DNR zoologist)

Appearance. Upon seeing a red-bellied woodpecker, the first thing you notice is probably not going to be the faint, rosy patch of feathers on its belly. Rather, this woodpecker, which is about the size of a robin, is readily identified by the bright red stripe starting at its hindneck and traveling all the way over the top of its head to the base of its bill (in males) or just in front of its eyes (in females). The rest of its upperparts from its back down to its white rump alternate black and white in a horizontal “ladder-backed” pattern, and its tail is patterned similarly. Its face and the rest of its underparts, excepting its belly, are a dull grayish-white. Its eyes are reddish-brown, and its strong, chisel bill and zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forward, two facing backward) are a slate gray.

Habitat and Behavior. Like all woodpeckers in Minnesota, the red-bellied is often observed foraging up and down tree trunks and along tree branches, probing for insects that may be hiding in the bark. You will also frequently find it visiting bird feeders, including suet and fruit feeders; this woodpecker is especially fond of orange halves, and it’s not uncommon to see it feeding alongside Baltimore orioles in late spring and summer. Look for this bird year-round anywhere near trees and especially near deciduous woodlands in the southern two-thirds of the state. A rather vocal woodpecker, its common calls include a long, descending series of chuckling notes in addition to shorter one-note and two-note phrases. Although it can be heard year-round territorially drumming—using its bill to produce a rapid series of loud taps on hard surfaces like tree trunks—this behavior becomes especially apparent in late winter and early spring as the breeding season approaches. Its nesting cavity, typically excavated in a dead limb or dead tree, often aspen or birch, includes an entrance hole just under 2½ inches in diameter.

Northward Expansion. A hundred years ago, the red-bellied woodpecker was at the northwestern extent of its North American range in southern Minnesota. Since then, the species has been expanding its range both northward and westward. It has been encountered in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties, with reports continuing to increase from the northern third of the state, where it was absent until well into the 20th century. This northward expansion closely mirrors that of another now-common bird throughout most of Minnesota, the northern cardinal. Climate change has been identified as a main driver of these expansions; warmer winters on average increase the chances that an individual bird survives to the following breeding season.