Red-bellied Woodpecker | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
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Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
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Red-bellied Woodpecker
Melanerpes carolinus

[Published in 1939: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 237-245]

This showy and noisy woodpecker enjoys a wide distribution throughout much of the eastern half of the United States, except the most northern and northeastern states. Throughout much of this range, it is one of the commonest and most conspicuous of woodpeckers. Arthur H. Howell (1932) writes: "In Florida, red-bellied woodpeckers are found chiefly in hammocks, groves, and wet bottom-land timber, less commonly in the pine woods and the cypress swamps. . . . These woodpeckers are not particularly shy, and they often visit dooryards and orchards." In Texas, according to George Finlay Simmons (1925), its favorite haunts are "heavily timbered bottom lands or swampy woods; open deciduous or mixed coniferous woodlands with very large trees; heavy woods of oak and elm along river and creek bottoms; shade trees and dead trees in town." Major Bendire (1895) says: "Throughout the northern portions of its range it prefers deciduous or mixed forests to coniferous, but in the south it is apparently as common in the flat, low pine woods as in the oak hammocks. Newly cleared lands in which numbers of girdled trees still remain standing are favorite resorts for this as well as other species."

Nesting.--Bendire (1895) writes:

Birds that migrate from the northern portions of their range usually arrive on their breeding grounds rather early, sometimes by March 20, and shortly afterwards preparations for nesting are commenced. A suitable site is readily found in the decayed top of some tree, or in an old stump, near a stream along the edges of a pasture, or close to some road, and less often farther in the center of a forest. Deciduous trees, especially the softer wooded ones, such as elms, basswood, maple, chestnut, poplar, willow, and sycamore, are preferred to the harder kinds, such as ash, hickory, oak, etc. In northern Florida they nest frequently in pines. Several excavations are often found in the same tree in which the nest is located, and occasionally the same site, with slight repairs, is used for more than one season. . . .

Both sexes assist in excavating the nesting site, as well as in incubation, which lasts about fourteen days. The sites selected are usually from 5 to 70 feet from the ground, and resemble those of our woodpeckers in every respect, averaging about 12 inches in depth. It takes from seven to ten days to excavate a nest, and frequently the birds rest a week afterwards before beginning to lay; an egg is deposited daily, and from three to five are usually laid to a set, rarely more.

Mr. Howell (1932) says that in Florida "almost any kind of a tree will satisfy the birds for a nesting site, but a partly decayed stub seemingly is preferred. Where cabbage palms occur, a dead stub of that tree is often chosen, and cavities in oaks, cypresses, pines, and other trees are frequently utilized, the nesting hole being anywhere from 5 to 70 feet from the ground, usually, however, under 40 feet. Nesting begins in April and continues until June." The only nest I ever examined in Florida was found on April 25, 1903, on one of the Bowlegs Keys, in the Bay of Florida; it was placed in a dead branch of a black mangrove; the cavity was about 14 inches deep and contained four fresh eggs.

Mr. Simmons (1925) says that in Texas this woodpecker nests in "dead limbs of stumps of hackberry, Chinaberry, cedar elm, pecan, and American water elm trees, particularly the rotten, shaky, skeleton upper parts of living hackberry trees in backyards, or in telegraph poles along city streets and alleys." In a small village in Texas I once found a nest containing three eggs in a fencepost near one of the houses.

Various observers have given quite different measurements of the nesting cavity. Mr. Simmons (1925) says: "Entrance, diameter 1.75 to 1.96. Cavity, depth 10 to 12; widest diameter near bottom (3 above eggs) 5.25." William H. Fisher (1903) found a nest in Maryland in which "the opening measured 2 by 2 1/4 inches and it was 5 inches from the outer edge of the hole to the back wall."

Charles R. Stockard (1904) located a nest in Mississippi, of which he says:

"In the spring of 1900 a nest of this species was located in a dead cottonwood tree which stood in an open pasture. The nest was a burrow fifteen inches deep with a perfectly circular entrance about forty feet above the ground. A set of five eggs was taken from it on April 24. The entrance being small, it was found necessary to cut it larger so as to admit my hand. Twenty-three days later the same nest contained a second set of five eggs, slightly incubated. The enlarging of the entrance evidently had no ill effect except for the fact that the burrow had been deepened several inches, probably to prevent an extra amount of light on the floor of the nest. These birds seem to gauge the depth of their excavations more by the amount of light admitted than from any instinct to dig a certain distance. For example, burrows that had their entrance just below a limb or were situated in shady woods were noticed, as a rule, to be shallower than those located in exposed fields or on the sunny side of the tree.

Bayard H. Christy (1931) describes a nest found in Pennsylvania as follows:

The hole was in the top of a great primeval white oak, standing in the bottom of a wooded ravine and at the edge of a neglected clearing, in southern Beaver County. I had discovered it a month or six weeks before, attracted by the calls of the bird. The hole was drilled in a dead and vertically standing bough about eight inches in diameter, in the very centre of the crown of the oak, and was, I should say, about eighty feet above the ground; it was drilled in the northern side of the bough, and beneath the talus of a branch which had died and fallen away, leaving a knot-hole a few inches above. The woodpeckers' hole was newly cut, and the bark around and beneath it had been trimmed by use or by design, so that the region about formed a tawny patch upon the grey of the bough.

S. A. Grimes (1932) mentions four cases that have come under his observation, in which red-bellied woodpeckers have occupied old nests of red-cockaded woodpeckers in Florida. F. M. Phelps (1914) mentions another similar case.

Eggs.--The red-bellied woodpecker lays three to eight eggs, usually four or five. It is a persistent layer; if the first set is taken, it will lay a second set within a week or two, generally in the same nest. Mr. Stockard (1904) reports his experience with a pair that laid four sets of eggs, 19 eggs in all, and all in the same nest.

Bendire (1895) says that "the eggs are white, mostly ovate in shape; the shell is fine grained and rather dull looking, with little or no gloss, resembling in this respect the eggs of Lewis's woodpecker more than those of the red-headed species." I have seen eggs that are elliptical-ovate in shape, and decidedly glossy; eggs that have been incubated for some time become more glossy than when first laid. The measurements of 50 eggs average 25.06 by 18.78 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.00 by 19.79, 25.15 by 23.62, 23.00 by 18.70, and 23.11 by 16.76.

Young.--The period of incubation is said to be about 14 days. Both sexes assist in this and in the feeding and care of the young. In the more northern portions of its range, probably only one brood is reared in a season, but in the south this woodpecker is said to raise two and sometimes three broods.

Plumages.--Like other woodpeckers, the young are hatched naked and blind, but the juvenal plumage is acquired before the young leave the nest. In this the young male closely resembles the adult female, but the colors are duller, the barring is less distinct, and the white bars are suffused with brownish white; there are indistinct dusky shaft streaks on the chest and little or no red on the abdomen, which, if present, is more orange or yellowish; there is no clear red on the head, but the gray crown is sometimes suffused centrally with dark red mixed with the gray; the hind neck is often suffused with pinkish or yellowish. The juvenal female is similar to the young male, but the top of the head is darker gray, or dusky, and there is less reddish or yellowish suffusion anywhere. The juvenal plumage is apparently worn through the first fall; I have seen it as late as December 20, but Forbush (1927) says that it is shed between August and October. In the first winter plumage, there is an advance toward maturing, young males acquiring more red on the crown and occiput, and young females on the latter. There is probably more or less continuous molt during winter, or a partial prenuptial molt in early spring, by which young birds become practically indistinguishable from adults. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt late in summer and early in fall.

Food.--Bendire (1895) says:

Its food consists of about equal proportions of animal and vegetable matter, and it feeds considerably on the ground. Insects, like beetles, ants, grasshoppers, 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; but as it always returns to the same one, until this ceases to yield any more juice, the damage done in this is slight. It has also been observed drinking the sweet sap from the troughs in sugar camps. The injury it commits by the little fruit it eats during the season is fully atoned for by the numerous insects and their larvae which it destroys at the same time, and I therefore consider this handsome Woodpecker fully worthy of protection.

An examination of 22 stomachs by Professor Beal (1895) showed: "Animal matter (insects) 26 percent and vegetable matter 74 percent. A small quantity of gravel was found in 7 stomachs, but was not reckoned as food. Ants were found in 14 stomachs, and amounted to 11 percent of the whole food. Adult beetles stand next in importance, aggregating 7 percent of all food, while larval beetles only reach 3 percent. Caterpillars had been taken by only 2 birds, but they had eaten so many that they amounted to 4 percent of the whole food. The remaining animal food is made up of small quantities of bugs (Hemiptera), crickets (Orthoptera), and spiders, with a few bones of a small tree frog found in 1 stomach taken in Florida."

The red-bellied woodpecker eats some corn, which it has been seen to steal from corncribs and from bunches of corn hung up to dry. Various berries have been recorded in its food, besides those mentioned above, mulberries, elderberries, bayberries, blueberries, and the berries of the Virginia creeper, cornel, holly, dogwood, and poison ivy, also the seeds of ragweed and wild sarsaparilla, hazelnuts, and pecans. N. M. McGuire (1932) saw one feeding at the borings of the yellow-bellied sapsucker on a sugar maple tree, driving the latter away; he "would fly at the Sapsucker, causing him to dodge around a limb in order to keep out of the way."

Dr. B. H. Warren (1890) first called attention to the orange-eating habit of the red-bellied woodpecker in Florida, where it is called the "orange sapsucker" or "orange borer." He found on inquiry that these birds often destroyed large numbers of oranges when they were ready for picking and that "they damaged the orange trees by boring holes in them and sucking the sap." He collected 26 of these woodpeckers in one orchard, 11 of which had "fed to a more or less extent on oranges."

William Brewster (1889) saw a red-bellied woodpecker eating the pulp of a sweet orange at Enterprise, Fla. He says that it attacked the orange on the ground, pecking at it in a slow and deliberate way for several minutes. On examining the orange, he found it to be decayed on one side. "In the sound portion were three holes, each nearly as large as a silver dollar, with narrow strips of peel between them. The pulp had been eaten out quite to the middle of the fruit. Small pieces of rind were thickly strewn about the spot. Upon searching closely I discovered several other oranges that had been attacked in a similar manner. All were partially decayed, and were lying on the ground. I was unable to find any on the trees which showed any marks of the woodpecker's bill."

Certainly the habit of eating fallen and partially decayed oranges does no injury to the orange groves, but D. Mortimer (1890) tells a different story:

While gathering fruit or pruning orange trees, I frequently found oranges that had been riddled by this woodpecker, and repeatedly saw the bird at work. I never observed it feeding upon fallen oranges. It helped itself freely to sound fruit that still hung on the tree, and in some instances I have found ten or twelve oranges on one tree that had been tapped by it. Where an orange accidentally rested on a branch in such a way as to make the flower end accessible from above or from a horizontal direction the woodpecker chose that spot, as through it he could reach into all the sections of the fruit, and when this was the case there was but one hole in the orange. But usually there were many holes around it. It appeared that after having once commenced on an orange, the woodpecker returned to the same one repeatedly until he had completely consumed the pulp, and then he usually attacked another very near to it. Thus I have found certain clusters in which every orange had been bored, while all the others on the tree were untouched.

The red-bellied woodpecker shares with other species, formerly included in the genus Melanerpes, the habit of storing acorns, nuts, insects, and other articles of food for future use. Ben J. Blincoe (1923) writes:

The red-bellied woodpecker is a heavy feeder on beech and oak mast. In the early fall its incessant "Cha-cha-cha" was a familiar sound in the beech woods about Cherry Hill. I never observed it in the act of storing beech mast though on numerous occasions red-bellied woodpeckers were seen carrying beechnuts to a considerable distance from the trees from which they were secured. Very likely many of these nuts were wedged in cracks or crevices for future use. However, in the fall of 1913, a red-belly was seen storing the acorns from a Chinquapin Oak (Quercus acuminata) which stood over the wood pile at Cherry Hill. The acorns were carried, one at a time, to fence posts ranging from twenty-five to three hundred yards distant from the oak tree, and were generally wedged in a crack in the post, usually near the top. One acorn was placed in a cavity caused by decay and laid loosely on the rotten wood. As far as my observations went, but one acorn was placed in a single post.

While Mr. Blincoe was shelling walnuts, he saw one of these woodpeckers carry off the shells, and apparently eat the remaining meat out of them. Several times he saw one stealing corn from his corncrib or flying off with cherries from a tree in his garden and sometimes carrying them to a fence post to eat. Again he watched one eating a hole in an apple, and "found that the apple on which it had been working bore a decayed spot near the stem and just at the edge of it, but entirely in the solid part of the apple, was a hole about half an inch across, and three-quarters deep. The bottom of this cavity contained several tiny holes, markings made by the woodpecker's mandibles. In the early winter, frequently, a red-belly would be seen feeding on an apple that remained on the tree, though decayed and practically dried up."

Lester W. Smith writes to me that it seems to be a habit of the red-bellied woodpecker in Florida to store away insects and other food. "After digging into and capturing and insect, I see it fly to a small hole, commonly in the trunk of the cabbage palmetto, and place the insect in it. At a hole 5 feet from the ground I found a male carolinus inserting the badly mutilated body of a cockroach. A large portion of his catches or finds he seems to prefer to hide away. A tree of small, late tangerines was visited almost daily during the latter half of May, and sections of pulp, taken from fruit torn open by the mockingbird, were carried off and hidden in various places. On June 3 I saw carolinus go to the base of banana leaves, take out a section of pulp, and fly away with it. Examination showed other pieces similarly hidden, some with ants on them."

M. P. Skinner (1928) says: "Although other woodpeckers carry off and store bits of food, the red-bellied woodpeckers appear to do it more than any others in the Sandhills. These birds are rather easily attracted to artificial feeding stations, especially if suet be offered them. They will eat nuts and bread crumbs, also, but not as greedily."

Behavior.--Mr. Skinner (1928) writes: "In flight, these woodpeckers are apt to progress step by step from tree to tree. In this respect, and in that it is undulating, their flight is much like that of other woodpeckers. In approaching a perch, the red-bellied woodpeckers usually glide and sweep up to it with the impetus already gained. . . . These woodpeckers work and hammer on the trunks of trees, on the boles of oaks, on boles high up in live or blasted pines, and on both living and dead limbs, usually working up, but working down also if they want to, using a peculiar partly-sidewise drop downward."

Voice.--Mr. Simmons (1925) gives the following elaborate interpretations of the various calls of this noisy bird:

In fall and winter, a soft scolding 'chuh'; 'chuh-chuh'; 'chow-chow'; 'cherr-cherr'; or 'chawh-chawh'. At other seasons, a variety of calls: a slow, harsh 'crer-r-r-r-r-r r r r r r r' or 'chur-r-r-r-r r r r r r r'; a noisy 'charr-r-r' or 'chawh-chawh'; a rather slow, regular 'chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh,' sometimes uttered in a series of a dozen or more as rapidly as the syllables can be plainly pronounced; a very rapid 'chuck-a-chuck-a-chuck-a-chuck-a -chuck-a- chuck-a-chuck-a'; a slow, harsh 'sherr, cherr, cherr' or 'crerr, creer, creer, creer, creer'; an alarmed 'cha-cha-cha'; at intervals, a loud, bold, running, connected 'koo er-r-r-r'; 'qu er-r-r-r-r'; 'qui er-r-r-r-r'; or 'k-r-r-ring,' uttered with a distinct rolling of the r's; in the nesting season, an additional 'whicker.'

Bendire (1895) says: "The Red-bellied, like the majority of our Woodpeckers, is a rather noisy bird. Its ordinary call note resembles the 'tchurr, tchurr' of the red-headed very closely; another sounds more like 'chawh, chawh,' and this is occasionally varied with a disagreeable creaking note, while during the mating season peculiar, low mournful cooing sounds are sometimes uttered, which somewhat resemble those of the Mourning Dove."

Various other observers have given somewhat similar descriptions to some of the above interpretations. When I first saw this woodpecker, many years ago in Florida, climbing up the trunk of a cabbage palmetto, its rolling notes sounded to me like those of a tree toad, as heard before a rain.

Field marks.--The red-bellied woodpecker is so conspicuously marked that it could hardly be overlooked. It is a medium-sized woodpecker, about the size of the hairy; the entire back and rump are conspicuously barred transversely with black and white; the wings are spotted or barred with white; the under parts are uniform gray, except for the inconspicuous reddish tinge on the abdomen; in the male the entire crown and nape are brilliant scarlet, and a large patch of the same color adorns the nape of the female.

Winter.--The migrations of this woodpecker are, apparently, not so extensive or so regular as those of most migratory birds; they seem to consist more of irregular wanderings and to depend more on the abundance of the food supply. The species occurs, in small numbers at least, more or less irregularly in winter even in the northern portions of its range. There is, however, usually a general southward movement in fall, which greatly increases its abundance in the southern states in winter. William H. Fisher (1897) says of its winter occurrence in Maryland: "I have only met with about half a dozen individuals outside of Somerset County, but there, for the last fourteen years, in either November, December or January, I have found them to be very abundant. According to my observations, they prefer the low, swampy woodlands and clearings, only occasionally being found in the isolated tree in the field."

W. E. Saunders tells me that it was formerly quite common in southern Ontario and came regularly to the feeding stations in winter; evidently some of these birds did not migrate. On the other hand, Audubon (1842) says: "In winter I have found the red-bellied woodpecker the most abundant of all in the pine barrens of the Floridas, and especially on the plantations bordering the St. John's river, where on any day it would have been easy to procure half a hundred." And C. J. Maynard (1896) writes: "I found the red-bellied woodpeckers quite abundant in winter in the piney woods which border the plantations on the Sea Islands off the Carolinas but as I proceeded south, their numbers increased and in Florida, they fairly swarmed, actually occurring in flocks. They accompany the cockaded woodpeckers in the piney woods and also associate with the yellow-bellies in the swamps and hummocks; in fact, it is difficult to remain long in any portion of Florida where there are trees, without hearing the discordant croak of these woodpeckers and I even found them on the Keys."

Red-bellied Woodpecker* Melanerpes carolinus

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1939. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 237-245. United States Government Printing Office