- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
Permanent resident. A common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
A species primarily of the Eastern Deciduous Forest region, the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s breeding range extends from the Central Plains east to the Atlantic coast. Highest breeding densities are found in the southeastern states, especially along the Gulf coast (Figure 1).
- Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 7/20 by Partners in Flight.
Although the species is considered a permanent resident throughout most of its breeding range, birds on the northern periphery of the range may move south during harsh winters and in response to food availability.
Feeds on insects, mast, fruit, seeds, and sap. Food secured by hawking insects, by gleaning foliage, and by probing and excavating bark surfaces.
Primary cavity nester in snags or dead limbs in live trees.
Minnesota lies on the northern periphery of the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s breeding range. Its northward range expansion throughout the United States has been documented for many years, including by many breeding bird atlases. In Pennsylvania, for example, the species was confirmed nesting in twice as many blocks during their second atlas (2004–2009) than during their first atlas (1983–1989); many of the new records were in the northern half of the state (Wilson et al. 2012). In Ontario, the probability of observing Red-bellied Woodpeckers increased 250% from the first (1981-1985) to the second atlas (2001-2005), and its range expanded north 112 km, and east 61 km (Cadman et al. 2007).
The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s history in Minnesota is another excellent study of the species northward expansion. Although not always reliable, Hatch’s 1892 publication Notes on the Birds of Minnesota is considered the first complete annotation of the state’s avifauna. Red-bellied Woodpeckers were not among the 304 birds he described. The first confirmed record for the state came one year after his publication, when a male was shot in Houston County in 1893. The collector reported that he had also seen a pair “several years previously” (Roberts 1932). Roberts first observed the bird in June of 1898, again in Houston County near the town of La Crescent.
Following the Mississippi River valley north, Red-bellied Woodpeckers were found in Goodhue County by 1900 and in Minneapolis by 1908. At the same time the species began spreading westward, evidenced by a 1907–1908 winter record in Rochester and an observation in the fall of 1908 in Steele County. Nesting was first confirmed in the state in the spring of 1903 when a nesting pair was found in Red Wing. No doubt, as Roberts noted, the species was probably breeding farther south in the state for many years prior to this. The first nest in the Twin Cities was found in Hennepin County in 1926.
When Roberts prepared his 1932 treatise on Minnesota birds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers had become a common resident as far north as Red Wing with a few pairs established in the Twin Cities. The metropolitan area was, however, the northern limit of its range. He predicted, though, that it would be found farther north and west in coming years.
Indeed, in 1975 Green and Janssen’s updated account reported that Red-bellied Woodpeckers, although still restricted largely to the southeastern corner of the state, were now a permanent breeding resident as far north as Stearns County. During the nonbreeding season birds were regularly reported as far north as Crow Wing County and as far west as the Des Moines River valley.
Several years later, Janssen (1987) reported the species’ range had expanded even farther, with confirmed nesting as far north as Aitkin County and as far west as Brown County. It was a common species south of a line that stretched from central Pine County in the east, west to southern Todd, Otter Tail, and Traverse Counties. Since 1970, nesting had been confirmed in a total of 12 counties, largely in the eastern half of the state. By 1998 Hertzel and Janssen added another 3 counties to the list, all in southeastern and south-central Minnesota.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Minnesota Biological Survey documented breeding season observations as far north as Itasca, Beltrami, and Clearwater Counties (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015). The species was absent, however, from the Arrowhead region east of Duluth.
Because the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a common visitor to bird feeders, Project Feeder Watch, led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, provided additional documentation of the species’ expansion northward. During the project’s first winter (1988-1989) the species was reported at feeders in southeastern and southwestern Minnesota, north nearly to Grand Rapids in the eastern region. By the 2013-2014 winter season they were reported north as far as Duluth, Bemidji, and Moorhead (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2015). Some researchers have suggested that the increase in bird feeding has contributed to the species’ northern expansion (Shackelford et al. 2000).
During the MNBBA, observers reported a total of 1,649 Red-bellied Woodpecker records in 21.8% (1,034/4,748) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 29.4% (687/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was confirmed in 3.1% (146) of the surveyed blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Birds were observed in 80 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, and breeding evidence was gathered in 49 counties (one block straddled Redwood and Renville Counties); 35 of the counties were additions to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen in 1998. The species was most common in the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Province. Although it was encountered frequently in the southern portion of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province, from the Brainerd Lakes region north to Bemidji, it was absent from most of north-central and northeastern Minnesota. It was equally scarce in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province and in Red River valley.
The predicted distribution map generated from MNBBA data (Figure 4) predicts that moderate breeding densities occur throughout the dissected river valleys of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in southeastern Minnesota as well as throughout scattered portions of east-central Minnesota west to the Hardwood Hills subsection in west-central Minnesota. The Blue Earth River and its tributaries in south-central Minnesota as well as the entire Minnesota River valley also support moderate breeding densities. Northeastern, north-central, and portions of northwestern Minnesota support the lowest densities of breeding birds.
Given that MNBBA breeding evidence was gathered as far north as Itasca, southern Beltrami, Hubbard, and Cass Counties, Roberts (1932) prediction nearly 100 years ago that the species would continue its spread to the north and west has come true. Indeed, the species’ breeding range has expanded approximately 350 km to the northwest from 1926, when it nested in Minneapolis, to 2013, when it was reported nesting in Bemidji during the MNBBA.
The range expansion witnessed in Minnesota is similar to that observed elsewhere along the periphery of the species’ range, including in Wisconsin (Cutright et al. 2006), Michigan (Chartier et al. 2013), Ohio (Rodewald et al. 2016), Ontario (Cadman et al. 2007), and Manitoba (Bird Studies Canada 2017). Farther east, in New England, its northward expansion has been facilitated by an aging forest landscape; farther west, in the Great Plains, its expansion has been facilitated by wooded floodplains and maturing tree plantings in urban areas (Shackelford et al. 2000).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.