Red-Bellied Woodpecker: Common, Conspicuous, and Misnamed

I am this month completing 14 years of careful record keeping on the birds of Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, close to 1200 observation days. There are a number of species that are present every season, but there is only one species that I have seen in every one of the last 168 months: the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Note: The bird pictures below were all taken by Margaret Weber. 

red bellied

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are recognized by their bright red caps and napes. They are often seen flying, in their undulating flight pattern, from tree to tree near the park road, but they are also found deep in the woods. They are also very comfortable in urban and suburban neighborhoods, especially where there are large trees. They are attracted to bird feeders for seeds and provide a bright and colorful presence during winter.

red bellied-1

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were not always so common in Michigan. When I was young, they were considered a southeastern U.S. bird. In the second half of the 20th century, they expanded their range northward and a little westward, a development that appears to be continuing.

The first of the two range maps here is a poor image taken from a bird book published in 1966; the second is from current on-line information at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Note how the species has moved up almost the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan in 50 years. (It does not migrate seasonally.)



What is most noticeable about the Red-bellied Woodpecker is the red on the head, not the red on the belly, which is rarely visible. It is easy for beginning or casual bird watchers to think the bird as “red-headed,” but the name “Red-headed Woodpecker” is assigned to another species, one with a whole head of red. The Red-headed Woodpecker visits EHP only occasionally, perhaps once a year.


The basis of the label “red-bellied” is sometimes visible, as in the next picture.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

In the fall, Red-bellied Woodpeckers harvest acorns in Eliza Howell, which they store in crevices of trees for later eating. In the spring they drill deep holes in dead trees, for nesting (and sometimes, it seems, just for the fun of it!).


Different bird species get my attention in Eliza Howell in different seasons of the year, but the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a constant highlight.


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