Rise of the Red-bellied Woodpecker

Posted by Mark Andrew Conboy

Red-bellied woodpecker
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Source KenThomas.us

Numerous species of birds in Ontario have expanded their ranges further north in during the past century. For example, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) has dramatically extended its range throughout Southern Ontario beginning in the early 1900’s, when it was rare in most of the province but is today a common species north into parts of Central Ontario. Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps even Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea) have all undergone similar range expansions (Cadman et al 2007). In recent decades this pattern has continued with the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), which is now being sighted with increasing frequency in Eastern Ontario.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have always been considered fairly rare at QUBS so their apparent sudden increase in the area is of considerable interest. I have been recording occurrences of this species on our properties since 2008. I summarize those observations below:

1 on the Moores Tract
2 at the southeast corner of Hughson Tract (copulation reported by Frank Phelan)
1 at Lindsay Lake Road

1 at the Southeast corner of Hughson Tract
1 on Lindsay Lake Road

2 in Silver Maple Swamp

2011 (to date)
1 north of Warner Lake
1 at QUBS Point (visited bird feeders at Ironwood Cottage)
1 on Old Bedford Road
1 on Lindsay Lake Road
2 at the Dowsley Ponds

Additional sightings from the QUBS area reported on eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/) by other observers are: 1 at “QUBS” in 2008 (Martin Piorkowski); 1 at Bedford Mills in 2010 (Peter Blancher); 1 at the cemetery on Opinicon Road (Patrick Blake) and 1 in Elgin (North Leeds Birders), both in 2011. So far the only breeding evidence we have is a pair observed copulating on the Hughson Tract in 2008 (Phelan, personal communication). Observations of Red-bellied Woodpeckers from other parts of Eastern Ontario include occasional eBird reports from Charleston Lake (to the south of QUBS) are starting in 2005 and the Ottawa area (to the north) starting in 2009.

Why Red-bellied Woodpeckers are now expanding into Eastern Ontario with success at this time is unclear. Possible explanations include changing climate contributing to increased winter survival; additional foraging opportunities resulting from bird feeders; and maturation of second-growth forests providing appropriate breeding habitat. The most recent edition of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001-2005 showed that 15 species expanded their range edge northward in Ontario in the 20 years since the first edition of the atlas. The northward expansion of most of these species may be attributable to any or all of the aforementioned hypotheses for the Red-bellied Woodpecker.


20 thoughts on “Rise of the Red-bellied Woodpecker”

  1. bird resembling the red bellied woodpecker seen on the ground eating ants in Southampton, Ontario July 31, 2013

  2. A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has been in our South Porcupine neighbourhood since the 22nd of Nov 2013. I saw it again around the 5th of January 2014. It’s adapting quite well considering we just had 2 weeks of extreme cold weather (between -30 C and -40 C and it went as low as -50 C with wind chill last week) South Porcupine is situated near Timmins, in Northern Ontario.

    1. For several years now we have had a red bellied woodpecker visit our feeders on St. Joseph Island near Sault Ste. Marie. Good to hear they are moving farther north.

  3. We have a male red bellied woodpecker (and possible female but she’s too quick) spending the winter here in Espanola, Ontario. He showed up at the beginning of December and comes every day several times to our suet feeders. We’re approximately 60 km west of Sudbury towards the North Channel of Georgian Bay.

  4. Winter of 2013-2014 we had a female Red Bellied Woodpecker, now the winter of 2014-2015 we have a female and a male at our peanut feeder and suet feeder on a regular basis. We are located 15 minutes north of Cobourg ON.

  5. We’ve just had this new friend visit our backyard suet feeder today her in Oakville, Ontario! Looking forward to seeing how the “pecking”order will work out with the other hairy & downy peckers in our yard

  6. January 5th, 2016, red bellied woodpecker on my peanut feeder! Mississauga East, Ontario near the Etobicoke River. And we are a ground floor apartment facing the wooded park! In addition to this for 2014 and 2015 this bird was frequently at our feeders throughout the summer on Howe Island. In the 32 years, we had never seen it before on said island. Happy birding everyone!

  7. March 25 2016 in coldwater Ontario I have red bellied woodpecker and 3 babies coming to our bird feeder on regular basis

    1. That is lovely to hear. At our field station we now have many red-bellied woodpeckers and in the morning one can hear their kwirr call throughout the forest.

  8. We have received our first Red Bellied Woodpecker (male) in our yard in London, ON (May 23, 2016)

  9. I have sighted a red bellied woodpecker twice at Bass Bay Rd. off the Honey Harbour rd. Muskoka rd. #5 at my suet feeder.

  10. London Ont – in all my years of feeding birds I’ve suddenly got a Red Bellied Woodpecker visiting our front porch suet-nut feeder :D I’d never seen one before so my daughter & I have taken many pics & video. What a lovely little fellow he is indeed, hoping he brings his lady friend!!

  11. May 13/2017 — Gravenhurst Ont.
    A male Red – Bellied visited my peanut feeder twice to day and was frequenting the trees behind our house – it was displaced by a male Redheaded Woodpecker that eventually began feeding at my ground feeding station — whole corn kernels and mixed grain

    1. Lovely. We have numerous red-bellied woodpeckers at our biological station and it is always a pleasure to hear the rolling calls aching through the woods.

  12. I just saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker on my tree in the backyard! I live just outside London Ontario on a farm :)

  13. Just saw a Red Belly in my back yard on top of a pergola. Managed to get a shot with my Canon Rebel. I’m in Barrie On.

  14. First sighting of a red bellied at our feeder today! In 2017, we also had an immature red headed woodpecker who matured to full crimson and black over the course of the winter. Flew away and has never been seen since.

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