This holiday season you may spot an unexpected visitor in your backyard: red-bellied woodpeckers are showing up in Maine in places the species hasn’t been seen before.
Typically, a few readers send me photos every year, asking me to identify a strange woodpecker at their feeder. Some have already figured out it’s a red-bellied woodpecker, but question why it’s here. The woodpecker’s breeding range barely reaches into southern New England, as many maps in guidebooks show.
My favorite online source for birding information, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, displays several maps in different places. Their AllAboutBirds.org map depicts a red-bellied woodpecker range limited to southern Massachusetts. BirdsOfTheWorld.org places the northerly boundary around Portland. And the eBird.org database, continuously updated, lists November sightings as far as the northern tip of New Brunswick.
It must have been a good summer. Reports of woodpecker sightings doubled last month. I even had my own repeated visits from a male — the first in my yard in a decade.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are about the same size as hairy woodpeckers. They have a streaky, zebra-like pattern on the back that helps conceal them against tree bark if trouble comes. Otherwise, they have a pale belly with just the hint of a red wash. The red crown on the male is easily noticeable, extending down the nape. The female has a red nape but lacks the red crown.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are doing well. While many species have experienced major population declines, woodpecker numbers have increased. Partly, it’s because they are comfortable around people. Suburban sprawl has reduced habitat for many birds, but red-bellied woodpeckers actually like backyards. They prefer sparse trees to dense forests. They appreciate feeders, and will bully competitors on the feeder, except for blue jays. Blue jays win.
I dusted off two ancient tomes from my bookshelf — Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds,” and a weighty atlas from multiple authors titled “Birds of America.” Both date back to about 1936, and define the northern limit of red-bellied woodpeckers as Delaware, with casual occurrences into southern New England and central New York. The bird’s Latin name, Melanerpes Carolinus, pays tribute to the Carolinas, where it was first studied in the mid-1700s.
Red-bellied woodpeckers accelerated their range expansion about 30 years ago, both north and west. It’s a common bird throughout the southeastern states, but it’s largely confined to this side of the Mississippi. The first recorded sighting in Maine occurred in 1958. In subsequent years, the numbers increased slowly. They started to be seen more regularly in southern Maine after 2000, gradually pushing northward. Even today, they’re still surprising Mainers wherever they go.
All woodpeckers are noisy, mostly because they have something to say. Woodpeckers aggressively defend territories when breeding. Frequent vocalizations and drumming ward off rivals. Woodpecker pairs also stay together for much of the year and they communicate with each other regularly.
I nominate the red-bellied as our noisiest resident woodpecker. They have at least four hard-to-mistake vocalizations, all of them loud. If you see one in your yard, try to hear it calling. Henceforth, you should be able to relocate it at will. Seriously, they seldom shut up.
Ironically, despite territorial aggression against their own kind, red-bellied woodpeckers seem to coexist peacefully with other woodpecker species. Hairy and downy woodpeckers don’t seem to mind each other’s company, and red-bellied woodpeckers seem to share the same trees and feeders without undue antagonism.
I suspect their movement north will slow over the next decade. Red-bellied woodpeckers prefer deciduous trees, with a tolerance for pine. They eat the same bugs and grubs that other woodpeckers eat, and supplement their diets with acorns, nuts and pine cones. As the northern forest gradually switches over to predominantly spruce and fir, the habitat becomes less hospitable for these guys.
There was only one documented sighting of this species in Maine’s boreal forest this year, a report from Baxter State Park in August. Presumably that woodpecker was done raising a family and doing some solo exploration before winter. Its tendency to explore after breeding contributes to range expansion.
Global warming may have accelerated red-bellied woodpecker colonization in Maine’s suburbs, but given the bird’s expansionist tendencies, it was probably moving north anyway. The changing climate’s impact is more noticeable along the southwestern edge of its range, where the bird has lost about 8 percent of its territory, especially in Texas.
I wonder if my unexpected visitor is still around. Better put out some more suet.