It wasn’t until the winter of 2011-12 that I observed a red-bellied woodpecker for the first time. In fact, I actually heard the bird first. The observation occurred in Detroit Lakes.  Curious about the new call I was listening to, I approached the tree that the sound was coming from. It didn’t take long for me to locate the bird.

    I was fairly confident that the call-notes I was homing in on was that of a woodpecker. I remember thinking at the time that the call-notes were somewhat similar sounding to other species of woodpeckers.    

    Characterized as medium sized, red-bellied woodpeckers are about the same size as hairy woodpeckers, although they appear a little larger, though not as big as northern flickers.  Their wingspans are around twelve to sixteen inches and a total body length between nine and ten inches. But what sets them apart from other Minnesota woodpeckers are their striking red caps and their uniquely barred black-and-white backs—hence, “ladder back”.

    Red-bellied woodpeckers, with their distinct ladder backs of alternating rows of black and white plumage, don’t possess all that much red coloration on their bellies.

    Indeed, there are handful of species of wild birds that are curiously named for features that are difficult to distinguish. Think yellow-bellied sapsucker and the ring-necked duck for example. And for that matter, the hairy woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Hairy and downy? For the life of me I can’t understand how it was that someone came up with those two names for those two species of woodpeckers (even though their names are explained in the literature, one would be hard pressed to pick out “hairy” and “downy” features).

    Red-bellied woodpeckers are one of six species of North American woodpeckers that share the same genus name, Melanerpes.  And of these half dozen birds, only one other of the genus occurs in Minnesota: the red-headed woodpecker.

    The range of red-bellied woodpeckers includes the entire east half of the United States, including much of Minnesota, particularly the southeast and within a line northeast to Duluth.  They are found in a wide variety of forest types, including urban woodlands and especially in forested riverbottoms.  Throughout Minnesota’s great northwest, red-bellied woodpeckers remain infrequent visitors that probably rarely breeds and nests here.

    Yet, red-bellied woodpeckers, similar to northern cardinals, seem to be establishing themselves here in the Northland. After having observed my first red-bellied woodpecker in Detroit Lakes some seven years ago, I’ve enjoyed the comings and goings of a pair of red-bellies here at my home southwest of Bemidji adjacent to Assawa Lake. Their distinctive vocalizations usually give them away, it’s delightful to me that this species of bird appears to be gaining a foothold within various habitats in the northwestern part of Minnesota.

    The breeding season of red-bellied woodpeckers is not all that far off. Though hard to imagine when one looks outdoors at this minute, spring will soon arrive and snow and ice will melt once again. Both the male and female share in the duties of excavating nesting cavities in trees, as well as incubation duties and rearing of their young.  

    Males tend to do most of the cavity construction. Nest sites are chosen carefully, often in quaking aspen or American elm trees, usually some fifty feet from the ground. There are records of red-bellied woodpecker cavities as high as 120 feet.  Interesting, too, is that male red-bellies also help with the incubation duties, most often at nighttime.

    Unlike some woodpeckers, the diet of red-bellied woodpeckers appears more varied. A host of foodstuffs are sought and consumed by this species that includes fruits, berries, and seeds of all kinds. There are records in scientific literature in which researchers have observed red-bellied woodpeckers eating small birds, bird eggs, frogs, and fish.

    At your backyard bird feeding stations, red-bellied woodpeckers are attracted to black oil sunflower seeds and suet. Other items that red-bellied woodpeckers will readily eat are cheese, nuts of all kinds, and even raisins.

    This unique species of woodpecker calls Minnesota its year around home. One of nine total species of woodpecker that occur in the state, red-bellied woodpeckers only recently have included northern Minnesota as part of its range as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

    Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at bklemek@yahoo.com.