The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 28, 2005


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Water-color painting by George Miksch Sutton, from Georgia Birds by Thomas Burleigh.
Name: Melanerpes carolinus or Red-bellied Woodpecker. The genus name comes from the Greek words melanos meaning black and herpes meaning a creeper. The bird does have some black parts and it does have the two toes forward and two toes back that allow it to creep up and down tree trunks but the genus name is more descriptive of some blacker members of the genus, like the Acorn Woodpecker and Lewis's Woodpecker, not seen in the eastern U.S. The common name is also a bit troublesome since the faint reddish tinge on its belly is one of the last things you would notice about this bird — in the field. A bird in the hand is a horse of another color. Many birds, presumably this one, were named after inspection of dead specimens. It does peck wood.

When and where seen: Melissa Webster of Curve Street had a male red-bellied woodpecker visit her suet feeder twice in the morning on January 18. She has frequent visits from downy and hairy woodpeckers but this was a first for the handsome red-bellied.

Moving to Carlisle: Red-bellied woodpeckers were not recorded in Carlisle before 1983. Ken Harte saw the first one at his feeder on September 11, 1983. It was an immature bird and two possible explanations for its origin are either that it wandered north from Martha's Vineyard and ended up here, or that it came from the Estabrook Woods where perhaps a pair had nested, undiscovered. Lyn Oleksiak also saw one, maybe the same individual, on Christmas Day 1983. Jane Anderson, on the eastern side of the Estabrook Woods, also saw one probably in the winter of 83-84. From 1985 through 1994 there was at least one red-bellied woodpecker in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). In 2003 the count had reached 21 — it was down a little this year at 18. See Ken Harte's graph for 32 years of CBC data. They are no longer rare in Carlisle. I have had a pair visiting my suet feeder on School Street, regularly over the past two winters, but only an occasional visit so far this winter.

Distinguishing characteristics: The red-bellied woodpecker at about 9 inches long is roughly the same length as the hairy woodpecker, which in turn is over two inches longer than our other common woodpecker, the downy. The red-bellied is an exciting bird to see because the coloring is so striking. The males have a broad band of red on the back of the neck running all the way up over the top of the head down to the beak. The females have the red on the nape only. The red is a more orange-red than the red spot on a male downy or hairy. Melissa said of her visitor, "His head positively glowed in the sunlight — he wouldn't have been out of place in the East Village!" Both males and females have a very crisp pattern of black and white bars across their backs making a nice contrast with the red. They have white breasts, undersides, and rumps. If the viewing angle is just right you can see the blush of red on the belly.

Nesting: The red-bellied woodpecker is a primary cavity nester, meaning that it will excavate its own cavity. Secondary cavity nesters use holes that they find. The more dead and dying trees that are cut down, the fewer opportunities there are for these cavity-nesting birds. Whenever it's safe to leave an old tree the better it is for the richness of our biodiversity. Most woodpeckers do not reuse their nesting cavity in subsequent years making them available to chickadee, bluebird, titmouse, and other species.

References: David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior; Ken Harte for the Carlisle history and Christmas Bird Count graph.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. Send your ideas, your nature photos, or the whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito