By Dianne Taggart
SIZE-9 inches WINGSPAN-13-17 inches
One of our local backyard favorites, Red-bellied Woodpeckers love to visit our feeders and suet offerings. The red on its belly may be hard to see, but the bird is not; its loud call and large size make it easily visible as it moves along the tree trunks and flies to the feeders. Red-bellies are fairly passive and will allow other birds to feed next to them, but if challenged they become aggressive and will “snap” bills at Blue Jays and other larger birds.
Red-bellies have a “zebra-patterned” back with a gray throat and belly. Males have a red crown, forehead and nape; females have red only on the back of the head. The red belly is visible sometimes on a small portion of the lower breast. The bill is black, the feet are dark gray and the eyes are red brown.
Red-bellies have the undulating flight of many woodpecker species. They move along tree trunks, using a “hitching” movement (a distinctive downward hopping), always checking the tree for sources of food. The birds like pine-hardwood forests, oak, hickory and maples, depending on the area of the eastern half of the country where they reside.
The birds store acorns and other food sources in tree cracks and holes in fence posts. They occasionally “hawk” for flying insects, will forage on the ground, and will hang upside down to feed on berries. Males tend to forage on tree trunks; the females forage on tree limbs. The Red-bellies tongue is unusually barbed and extends beyond the bill, making them more adept than other woodpecker species in grabbing insects; the gland under the tongue that secretes a sticky substance is also larger. The male’s tongue is wider and the bill longer than the female, allowing him to be able to reach deeper into crevices. Besides nuts and berries, they will also feed on seed and fruits (they have been known to raid orange groves in Florida). Although known to consume arthropods, as well as lizards and small fish, they are the most vegetarian of all woodpeckers.
Courtship begins with the males tapping on trees and using the “kwirr” call. (Due to an attraction to sounds that resonate, Red-bellies often drum on aluminum roofs, gutters and even cars…sometimes creating an annoyance for homeowners.) Once the female shows interest, shared tapping begins establishing a pair bond and site selection of a nest site soon follows. The male and the female begin excavation on a dead tree and it will take 7 to 10 days to carve out a nest. Eggs will be laid on the small wood chips that fall to the bottom of the cavity. Normally 4 eggs are laid and both sexes will incubate. Incubation lasts about 12 days. Born with eyes closed and no feathers, fledging occurs about 24 to 27 days after hatching. Both parents feed the young.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers can live 20 years in the wild. They are known to “play”; flying and dodging among trees as if evading predators (also a learning technique for the young).
Red-bellies, previously a Southern species, have migrated north over the last hundred years and now reside as far north as Massachusetts and even further north. Although they are not a seasonal migratory bird, northern birds may move further South during very harsh winters. They will roost singly in cavities at night. The most serious threat to Red-belly populations is European Starlings that drive Red-bellies from their nest cavities.
So, check the trees for a zebra- backed bird “hitching” its way up and down the tree trunk or flying into your feeder. If you are really lucky you may get to spot the “rosy” belly of the Red bellied Woodpecker.
The photos below were all submitted by members of the Long Island Wildlife Photography group on Facebook.
More images and video on pages 2, 3, and 4