Hey, George, look at that red-headed woodpecker up in our tree," my neighbor Sue Wendelberger called over the fence.
"That's not a red-headed woodpecker," I said. "It's a red-bellied."
"Really? But where is its red belly?" Sue questioned.
Without realizing it, Sue had hit upon the challenge of identifying this flashy bird.
If any bird was ever misnamed, it's the red-bellied woodpecker. Go ahead and take a close look. You can search with the best binoculars on the market, but chances are, you're not going to see this bird's red belly.
Though the adults do have a red wash on their lower bellies, you seldom see it. The bird has to be clinging to a tray feeder with its upper breast and belly angled just right.
I think this bird's name would be more accurate if they had called it the zebra or ladder-backed woodpecker. After all, the black and white bands that cover its back, wings and tail are its most distinguishing feature.
I see red-bellied woodpeckers every day in my Wisconsin backyard, but I only catch glimpses of their red bellies about twice a year. One of those times occurred a couple of years ago when a pair of these birds decided to nest in the basswood tree outside my window.
The male and female were working together excavating a nesting cavity. I enjoyed watching them, the female with her red nape and the male with his red extending from nape to bill.
Nesting Cut Short
I was anxious to watch the whole nesting pageant from start to finish. Females typically lay four to five white eggs in a cavity. The young don't leave the nest until 3-1/2 weeks after hatching, so all in all, it's a good month of entertainment.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Shortly after they completed their cavity, a pair of European starlings arrived on the scene. The battle between the four was fierce and went on for days. At first, it seemed that the red-bellies were winning because I could see the female sticking her head out of the cavity.
In the end, all the birds left. Sadly, the space remained empty until autumn when a gray squirrel filled it with leaves in preparation for winter. Don't let this outcome fool you, though. Red-bellied woodpeckers aren't the type to give up a fight. In fact, Mary Jane Dennis of San Saba, Texas can vouch for that.
A few years ago, a red-bellied woodpecker showed up to her empty bluebird nest box. The entrance hole was much too small, so the bird took matters into its own bill, so to speak. Soon, it had doubled the entrance hole.
"My husband and I enjoyed watching the woodpecker renovate this nest box and have left it up in hopes that it would return with a mate in spring," Mary says.
With all the pounding and drilling the red-bellied does with its bill, it makes you wonder how they're physically able to do this. It's actually quite simple.
To begin with, woodpeckers literally have thick skulls. Add to the equation the strong muscles around their skulls and bills that absorb the shock of pounding, and you can see how they can withstand the hammering.
While impressive, this amazing bill sometimes gets woodpeckers in trouble. People can hear their racket a mile away. And even though they're only courting and declaring territory with this noise, it can also damage the surface they're drumming on, which is troubling if it's the siding on your house.
Expanding Their Range
Red-bellied woodpeckers are relatively new to the North. Like northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and tufted titmice, these birds are native to the Southeast.
It's only been in the late part of last century that they pioneered northward. I recorded my first red-belly in southeastern Wisconsin in December 1975. Since then, we have seen these birds in our backyard every year. Red-bellies are now common through the Upper Midwest and Northeast from the Great Plains east to New England.
Some ornithologists believe that the increased availability of feeder food has contributed to their expansion. I know from my own experience that these birds have adapted their eating habits quite a bit.
When they first arrived in our region, they only seemed interested in suet. It was a shock when I spotted one clinging to my tube feeder one day, removing a cracked sunflower seed.
Apparently, they've developed a sweet tooth, too. Red bellies will also eat oranges intended for orioles and sugar water from hummingbird feeders.
Judy and Charlie Claggett even serve biscuits to their red-bellied friend in their Louisville, Kentucky backyard.
Feeding "Big Red"
For the past few winters, a male has visited the Claggetts' place every morning. They call him "Big Red." He announces his arrival by landing in a tree and "barking" a loud call.
This tells the couple they need to put out more biscuits on their feeding tray.
"The bird does this several times a day and is often with a downy woodpecker companion, although it's always Big Red who does the ordering." Judy says.
Whether it's for suet, birdseed, biscuits, oranges or even sugar water, red-bellied woodpeckers are always welcome in my backyard. With or without their red bellies showing, they're a gorgeous sight in winter, spring, summer or fall.