Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Red-Bellied Woodpecker

You have to look closely to see the key field mark this week’s featured bird is named for, but fortunately the red-bellied woodpecker has many great characteristics that make it well worth taking a good look!

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker – Photo by Frank Miles/USFWS

Name: Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes carolinus
Scientific Family: Picidae (Woodpeckers)

Habitat: Easily enjoys all types of woodland habitats, particularly where nut- or seed-producing trees are abundant. Regularly found in wooded suburban areas such as parks, cemeteries, golf course edges, school grounds, orchards and backyards.

Range: Red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents of their range throughout the eastern United States, stretching north to central Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, west to eastern Texas and Oklahoma, south along the Gulf Coast and all of Florida, and as far in the northeast as eastern New York and into Connecticut.

Despite their name, the red on the bellies of these woodpeckers isn’t always strong or noticeable, but it is a light wash on the lower abdomen that can be seen at the proper angle. More distinctive is the bright red on their head – from the bill to the nape for males, and just from the crown to the nape for females. Both genders have gray faces, black-and-white striped backs, and pale buffy-cream or tan underparts. The tail is black with white spots on the outer feathers and strongly forked, and their eyes are brownish-red.

These woodpeckers have personalities as bold as their coloration, and they will easily visit feeders for suet, nuts, sunflower seeds or bits of fruit. They fly in strongly, often scatteringĀ  other birds as they approach, and will perch on feeder poles or nearby branches to call with a harsh, bark-like note. They will snatch a bite or two, then fly off to hammer at a nut or open a seed in a nearby tree. They will also hitch themselves along tree trunks and larger branches as they forage for insects, and they will even visit bird baths. In flight, they have the strong undulating flight characteristic of all woodpeckers, with rapid rising wing beats followed by dipping glides as they pull their wings in for brief periods.

I’m fortunate that I have a number of red-bellied woodpeckers routinely visiting my feeders, giving me plenty of opportunities to learn their quirks. They are vocal and demanding, but still fun guests with their cocky attitudes. They hold their own with the blue jays, common grackles and other bold visitors, adding more energy and excitement to the yard. They hunt throughout the yard for peanuts I hide in a tree knothole, on windowsills and in other sneaky spots, then harshly criticize me for not putting out even more. Of course, I do – we must keep our feathered friends well fed!

Do you have red-bellied woodpeckers in your yard? Share your experiences in the comments!

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