Melanerpes carolinus

Status:  Common regular resident east and south, uncommon north, rare west.


Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM6285, 9 Apr 1903 Roca, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  No subspecies are currently recognized (Pyle 1997, Gill and Donsker 2017), although AOU (1957) listed four; the northernmost subspecies listed was zebra, whose range included Nebraska.

Changes Since 2000: This species has continued to expand its range westward in riparian woodlands and pioneering birds are routinely found west of the mapped range.  It now occurs regularly throughout the North Platte River Valley. It is still essentially unrecorded, however, in the western Sandhills, and reports in the Pine Ridge and along Lodgepole Creek are few.   BBS trend analysis shows the species has increased at a rate of 5.12% (95% C.I.: 3.66, 6.53) during the period 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017).

Resident: Red-bellied Woodpecker has spread gradually westward during the 20th century, but remains by far most numerous in eastern Nebraska, where BBS data indicate 95% of all birds are reported. Ducey (1988) cited breeding records prior to 1920 only for Otoe and Cass Cos, while the breeding range outlined by Bruner et al (1904) included and was southeast of West Point, Lincoln, and Beatrice. It has long occurred in the lower Missouri Valley, but was first recorded in Dakota Co in the winter of 1932-33 (Stephens 1957). Reports suggest that westward spread is accomplished by individuals dispersing westward along river valleys in winter, possibly aided by bird feeders (Miller et al 2020); such birds are regularly found outside of the current range outlined above.

Since the 1930s, when it was first noted in Dakota Co, it has spread westward in the Niobrara River Valley to the Valentine area in Cherry Co, where it is now established. Reports from Valentine NWR, Cherry Co, began in the 1990s: singles were there 12 Jul 1992 and 13 Jul 1998, but there are few reports since, including 30 Sep 2012, 26 Jun 2015, and 6 Aug 2016. Apart from an older report of a male south of Rushville on the Niobrara River 27 Nov 1980 and (probably the same bird) 29 Mar 1981 (Rosche 1982), westernmost sightings in the Niobrara River Valley are in the general area of NNF McKelvie and the Niobrara River just to its north: one was at the Highway 16 crossing of the Niobrara River 15 May 2015, two were at Chat Canyon WMA 31 May 2015, one was at Anderson Bridge WMA 19 Jun 2014, and singles were at NNF McKelvie 16 May 2015, 12 Jul 2016, and 18 Jul 2012, and one was at Merritt Reservoir 12 Jul 2016. A new westernmost sighting on the Niobrara River was in Sheridan Co, at the Trail 131 crossing of the Niobrara, 17 Sep 2020.

There is an isolated earlier nesting record as far west as south of Gordon, Sheridan Co, where copulation was observed 20 May 1959 (Gates 1959, Rosche 1982), but the only reports since in that area are of singles photographed in Gordon 17 Feb 2017, and 18 Feb and, at the same place, 24 Mar 2018.

There are a few recent records on the Pine Ridge; one was at a feeder in Crawford, Dawes Co Feb or Mar 1989 (Doug Kapke, personal communication), but there were no further reports there until 16 May 2010. Since 2010 there have been six Pine Ridge reports in Dawes Co: singles at Chadron SP 12 May 2011, 30 Sep 2014, and 30 May 2017, one along Bordeaux Road 22 Dec 2013, one at Ponderosa WMA 10 Jun 2015, one at Fort Robinson SP 7 Jul 2016 and another at Chadron SP 30 May 2017. There is an undated sighting from Sioux Co in the period 1984-89 (Mollhoff 2001).

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are rare in the Loup drainages in the western Sandhills. One was near Brownlee, Cherry Co on the North Loup River 20 Sep 2014. On the Middle Loup River, there are a few reports from NNF Bessey, Thomas Co, beginning 4 Nov 2004, and it was reported there again 23 Sep 2006, 6 Oct 2015, and 24 Feb 2016. One was at Seneca, Thomas Co 23 Sep 2015. Westernmost on the Middle Loup River was one in Hooker Co 31 May 2017; it was building a nest at the Highway 97 crossing. Also, in Hooker Co, another was “deep in the Sandhills” at Mullen, Hooker Co 13 Mar 2018. In Logan Co, singles were at Amber Lake west of Stapleton on the South Loup River 29 Apr 2012 and 18 May 2013 and at Stapleton singles were at two locations along the river to the east 27 May 2017. In McPherson Co, one was near Tryon on the South Loup River 23 Jan 2017. Perhaps a first record for Box Butte Co was one at Hemingford 15 May 2018.

Along the North Platte River Valley Red-bellied Woodpeckers have spread west to Scotts Bluff Co in low numbers; earliest records are in Scottsbluff 17 Dec 1978-4 Jan 1979, at North Platte NWR 16 May 1998, in a yard near Mitchell 2 Nov 1999-30 Apr 2000 (Kathy DeLara, personal communication), at Wildcat Hills SRA 21 Dec 2000, at McGrew 6 Nov 2000-8 Mar 2001, and near Mitchell 13 Nov 2002. Singles were at Stateline Island, North Platte NWR, Scotts Bluff Co 13 and 28 Apr 2019. One was at a suet feeder in Bridgeport during winter 1985-86 (Rosche 1994). Near Mitchell, the DeLara yard has hosted the species since 13 Nov 2002; the first report of a pair there was 18 Sep 2011 and first breeding 18 Aug 2013, when a male of a pair that summered there was feeding a fledgling. One was at Gering Cemetery 2 Sep 2008, and another was there 28 Mar 2015. Through 2016 there are at least 35 records along the North Platte River Valley in Garden and Morrill Cos. It was first recorded at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 22 Oct 1982, and one was in Garden Co 16 Dec 1993 (Morris 1994).

There are few reports south of the North Platte River Valley in the Panhandle. The earliest was of two at Oliver Reservoir SRA, Kimball Co 20 Sep 2000, but there were no further reports until 2013, when two were northwest of Dalton, Cheyenne Co 17 Feb 2013, another was in Sidney, Cheyenne Co 20 Apr 2013, one was at Mud Springs, southern Morrill Co 21 Sep 2013, and one was in Chappell, Deuel Co 29 May 2017.

It breeds throughout the South Platte and Republican River Valleys; it was first recorded in Webster Co 20 Apr 1935, was common as far west as Sutherland in 1956-57 (Short 1961), and has bred at Bonny Reservoir in Yuma Co, Colorado since the late 1960s (Andrews and Righter 1992).

In the southwest, there are several records along Frenchman Creek in Chase Co; earliest were at Imperial 29 May and 16 Nov 2003, and it has occurred there and in nearby parts of Chase Co since, including a pair excavating a nest hole 15 Jun 2005. There are two records for rural eastern Perkins Co, 20 Feb and 3 Jun 2003, and another at Grant 14 May 2017.

Red-bellied Woodpecker may be rare or locally absent in areas in eastern Nebraska away from watercourses and devoid of trees, such as portions of the Rainwater Basin (Jorgensen 2012).

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Copulation: 23 Apr-11 May
    Nest building: 19 Apr-15 Jun
    Fledglings: 18 Jul- 1 Aug

CBC data indicate that in Dec, about 95% of birds recorded were in the east; as expected for a resident species, this percentage matches BBS data (Summer). Bent (1939) indicated that there may be some southward movement in winter, and recent authors noted this also (Miller et al 2020). The only Nebraska evidence for this relates to a pair that has occupied a Scotts Bluff Co yard since 2011 but is not usually seen there during winter.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Photograph (top) of a Red-bellied Woodpecker at Papillion, Sarpy Co 3 Mar 2009 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Andrews, R., and R. Righter. 1992. Colorado birds.  Denver Museum of Natural History, Denver, Colorado, USA.

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed. Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Bent, A.C. 1939. Life histories of North American woodpeckers. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 174. Dover Publications Reprint 1964, New York, New York, USA.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Gates, D. 1959. Thirty-fifth Annual Cooperative Spring Migration and Occurrence Report. NBR 27: 50-67.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Miller, K.E., D.L. Leonard Jr., C.E. Shackelford, R.E. Brown, and R.N. Conner. 2020. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Morris, R. 1994. Fall 1993 Occurrence Report (July 1-December 31). NBR 62: 3-50.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Stephens, T.C. 1957. The birds of Dakota County, Nebraska. Revised and annotated by William Youngworth. Occasional Papers 3, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021. Red-bellied Woodpecker (nerpes carolinus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 4 Jan 2021