Red-bellied woodpeckers have been reported recently across the southern half of Maine. Bird guides usually show Massachusetts as the northern edge of the red-bellied woodpecker’s range, but this species is expanding its range.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are being reported in Stow, Topsham, Clinton, Hampden, Holden, Orrington, Mariaville, Mount Desert Island, Vinalhaven, Blue Hill, Brooksville, Orono, Down East and in southern New Brunswick. It’s quite an irruption.
We had another irruption of red-bellied woodpeckers in 2004. This species of the Southeast has been expanding its range northward for a century. It is possible that red-bellied woodpeckers may eventually inhabit the area from the coast to Rumford and Skowhegan, Old Town to Calais.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are 9 to 10 inches long, the size of the more familiar hairy woodpecker, but are more colorful and flashy with their red nape and black and white “ladder-back” look.
The bird’s front is gray or a warm beige, and the belly really is red — a light wash of russet red, hardly visible. A bird’s belly is well below its breast, and goes between the bird’s legs and a little farther. It’s likely that you won’t see this bird’s red belly; hopefully you won’t see this woodpecker belly up.
Names of many bird species originated in the era of “shotgun ornithology,” the time before binoculars. Ornithologists would collect birds and study skins, stored belly up.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are now expanding their population, and expanding their range. They can be noisy, coming out with “brrrrrrrt” and many other vocalizations.
If a red-bellied woodpecker were to find your bird feeder, it would as likely go for the sunflower seeds as for the suet. This species feeds on insects of all kinds, especially beetle larvae (grubs) in soft, rotten trees. They also feed on the ground, finding ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, crickets, acorns, beechnuts, elderber-ries, blackberries, cherries, sunflowers and apples.
It will be interesting to watch for this species over the next few years and decades.
The hardiest ones may survive and reproduce. The others don’t. That is how birds can expand their range.
Birders will watch for red-bellied woodpeckers on future Christmas Bird Counts. They also will send their bird lists to the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 13-16. Birders will send the bird lists to eBird for a number of years as well. These are both online projects that create a database. After many seasons, the expanding of the red-bellied woodpecker’s range may be evident.
Paul Markson is the compiler of the Orono-Old Town Christmas Bird Count taking place on Saturday, Dec. 14. To participate, call him at 947-9906.
For information on Fields Pond Audubon Center, call 989-2591.