Wild Side: The red-bellied woodpecker

Once rare, now fully at home on the Island.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Frank Miles/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Things are always changing in the world of wildlife. Sometimes the process is slow and subtle; in other cases, though, things happen more quickly than seems possible.

Exhibit A of this latter situation is the history of the red-bellied woodpecker on the Vineyard, and indeed in southern New England generally. Once a rare bird here, occurring only as the occasional vagrant, this distinctive bird exploded in abundance in our region over a period of just a few decades.

It is now almost universally established as a breeding bird across Massachusetts, while also exhibiting a clear pattern of vagrants and isolated breeding extending much farther north, as far as the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Clearly this species intends to continue its range expansion.

The story of this woodpecker also serves illustrates the power of “citizen science” — the practice, currently popular and likely to grow even more so, of combining the rigor of scientific approaches with the breadth, energy, and field skills of amateur observers.

Back in the mid-1970s, Mass Audubon began an innovative project to map the status and distribution of breeding birds in the Bay State. The results of several years of intensive surveys by amateur birders took a long time to finally make it into print. But “Birds of Massachusetts,” by ornithologists Dick Veit and Wayne Petersen, revolutionized the art and science of birding when it finally appeared in 1993.

Detailed species accounts summarized all that was known, from historical sources, informal records, and the survey work done in the 1970s, of the status of each species in the Bay State. By the standards of the time, it was a paradigm-shifting resource for birders and ornithologists alike.

Better still, Mass Audubon repeated the process beginning in 2007, adding refinements in manpower, survey methodology, and analytic techniques. The result, “Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2,” went public in a web-based format, simplifying publication and increasing access: bit.ly/BirdAtlas2.

Maps in this second atlas compare the status of each species during the two atlas periods, some 40 years apart, showing past and present distribution and highlighting any changes. In the case of the red-bellied woodpecker, the distribution of the species expanded from a few scattered dots in southern Massachusetts to nearly universal presence, excepting only the state’s highest elevations.

While a warming climate may have played a part in the northward dash of the red-bellied woodpecker, most of the change seems likely due to the regrowth of forests after the collapse of large-scale farming in southern New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Woodpeckers, as the name suggests, like trees, and the red-bellied woodpecker, with its particular fondness for large deciduous trees, especially in moist settings like floodplains that were favored for pasture and cropland, was a prime beneficiary of reforestation.

A flexible suite of foraging behaviors may also have helped this elegant bird expand its range. Like other woodpeckers, the red-bellied is optimized for feeding on insects and insect larvae that are concealed in wood. Chipping holes in tree trunks and limbs, woodpeckers run prodigiously long tongues into tunnels made by invertebrates, then extract their prey by snagging them with a barbed tip of the tongue. But as a family, woodpeckers have shown real creativity in augmenting their prime feeding strategy.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are frequent visitors to feeding stations, with a particular penchant for whole sunflower seeds. So the rise of bird feeding as a human hobby surely provided this bird with a new source of energy that must be especially helpful during the cold of winter. Red-bellied woodpeckers also sometimes forage on the ground, taking ants or other insects, and have a talent, unusual among woodpeckers, for snapping up flying insects out of midair. Robust in build and short-tailed, these birds are not what you’d call maneuverable in flight. But they’re quite deft launching straight-line sallies to pick off passing wasps or dragonflies.

With black-and-white striping across their backs and a red nape (in females) or nape and crown (in males), these are distinctive birds. They’re buffy underneath, but the eponymous red belly is an obscure mark, limited to a small part of the belly and generally not visible in the field. Red-bellied woodpeckers show strong white wing patches in flight, making them instantly recognizable even at long range.

And if one is around, you’re likely to hear it before you see it. Red-bellies are talkative birds, giving a loud, rolling “querrr” note and a guttural “chug” or “check.”

Like other woodpeckers, the red-belly nests in cavities, sometimes nest boxes but more often natural holes in trees. The species seems to be highly vulnerable to displacement by European starlings, an introduced cavity nester loathed by birders for its competition with native species. Virtually every red-belly nest I’ve located in my Oak Bluffs neighborhood has ended up taken over by starlings. But the woodpeckers must either relocate or manage to fledge their young prior to eviction when this happens, because the species persists in good numbers.

Well established on the Vineyard for 30 years or more, this attractive bird is easily found in oak woodland or in shade trees in settled areas. Next time you notice one, reflect that just a few decades ago, it would have been an exciting rarity anywhere in the state.