Where’s the red belly on that woodpecker?

The red-bellied woodpecker might be a tough bird for beginning bird watchers to identify. “Where’s the red belly?” they ask.

You have to be able to see the down layer. Early ornithologists didn’t have the binoculars we have today. They watched birds over the end of a shotgun barrel. They’d shoot the bird, pick it up and identify it. So, holding this woodpecker in the hand, they’d be able to easily see the pink or red down on the belly. And that’s how it got its name.

When it’s alive and perched on a tree trunk or a feeder, the bird’s outer layer of body feathers usually covers that pink tummy.

The red-bellied woodpecker is about the size of a robin but slimmer. Both male and female have red on their heads. The male has more red, an uninterrupted patch of red that starts at the base of the upper bill, goes back over the top of the head and down the nape of the neck. The female has a pinkish-red blush at the base of the upper bill, but the real solid red doesn’t start until the top of the head, then it goes back to the nape, like the male. The cheeks, neck and chin of the red-bellied are light colored, like the belly.

Some of my Lauderdale neighbors have got me excited by reporting a red-headed woodpecker in the village. But the red-headed woodpecker has a solid red head, chin and neck. I think they’re looking without binoculars, seeing red on the head and jumping to the conclusion that it’s a red-headed.

Last summer, we had a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers visiting our peanut and suet feeders. One day, I noticed that the male was missing the tip of its upper beak. I did some research and learned that beaks are made of keratin protein, like our hair and nails. The proteins are laid down in parallel bundles on the bird’s beak to give it strength. There was strong assurance that it would grow back and even grow back to a point. As I watched it that summer, it did indeed grow back to a handsome bill.

The male lost his mate sometime last summer, but he brought a juvenile to our yard to show it where the peanuts came from. The juvenile red-bellied woodpecker is mostly gray. There was no red on the head with the exception of a barely visible pink blush on the top of the head. Gradually as fall approached, the juvenile began to get red starting at the top of the head; it was a daughter.

This past winter, the same male has been at the feeders. Again, it lost the tip of its upper beak in the spring, but it grew back by midsummer. Fortunately, this never affected its ability to poke peanuts out of the feeder.

An adult female accompanied the bird. They took turns at the feeders. Was this the daughter all grown up and now his mate? What’s going on? Are there no rules or taboos in the bird world?

There are some bird species in isolated populations that may practice incest, but most researchers think that the normal post-breeding dispersal of juveniles limits the amount of inbreeding. This female may very well have been one that came into the male’s territory, after recognizing that he didn’t have a mate.

And the two of them brought a juvenile to the feeder this spring. So they’ve successfully brought another red-bellied woodpecker into the world. The juvie is feisty, defending the peanut feeder from starlings, grackles and even blue jays. All of this is good to see.

You may hear a red-bellied woodpecker before you see one. They have a rather loud, distinctive call, described as a “Kwirr” or “Churr.” If you hear that sound, keep your eyes peeled for a red-bellied. They also have a set of “Cha” calls they use between each other.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are cavity nesters. They generally make a new nest hole each year, sometimes below last year’s nest hole in the same tree, snag or limb. The female lays an average of four eggs. Both adults take turns incubating the eggs for about 12 days. The male usually takes the nightshift. At 24 to 27 days after hatching, the youngsters are ready to fledge. They stick around the nest site, being fed by their parents as they learn how to find food and protect themselves.

We usually see red-bellied woodpeckers year round, because they’re not migratory, except in a very bitter winter. Then they may move a bit farther south to escape the worst of it. They cover the eastern United States as far north as mid-Minnesota and as far west as North Dakota.

I’ve really enjoyed watching this little family over the last few years.


Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available at book and bird stores and at BirdmanBook.com.

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