For the Birds Radio Program: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Original Air Date: March 10, 1997 Rerun Dates: April 24, 1998

This program is about a rare visitor to the Northland. 3:24

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Last week I got a phone call from Carolyn Zanko in Island Lake, who wanted to tell me about a Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting her suet feeder on Saturday. When these lovely birds show up in the northland, the occasion is often as ephemeral as it is rare. The one and only time I’ve had one at my own personal feeder, it stayed for about one minute and then flew off, never to be seen again. Some people keep them for remarkably long periods even up here—my mother-in-law has had one at her Port Wing feeder for a whole winter at least a couple of times, and her good friends Florence and Jim had one all last summer. I don’t know how long Carolyn’s woodpecker will stay, but it turned up at least three times on Sunday, as well.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds because I associate them with the park in Madison, Wisconsin, where I spent most of my time from 1976-81. It was rare that I visited Picnic Point without seeing or hearing at least one. These woodpeckers bear striking markings, with a black-and-white zebra-striped back which contrasts beautifully with their soft pearl-gray undersides and cheek and glowing red nape, the red extending up the forehead in males. You have to see one at exactly the right angle to see the salmon-red-tinged feathers in the middle of the belly. They were obviously named by a museum scientist rather than a field ornithologist, because any woodpecker worth its salt clings to tree trunks, effectively hiding its belly.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat many of the same insects as their relatives do, and also take quite a bit of plant material, especially acorns, beechnuts, and berries. At feeders, they are as likely to eat corn and sunflower seeds as suet. THey eat much of what they find, but also store food for later consumption, digging out small crevices into which they force acorns, poison ivy berries, and other delicacies with their powerful tongue, described by Alexander Skutch as a sort of lingual proboscis.

Like most woodpeckers, mated Red-belly pairs share a territory only during the breeding season. In winter, each bird maintains an individual territory, with no need to socialize or hang out with its mate, rather like an old married couple, one staying in the TV room watching bowling while the other is in another room reading novels. A pair of Red-bellieds never laughs at the same jokes or watches the same movies. Now that days are growing longer and hormonal levels are surging, they do drum to each other occasionally, and by May they’ll be ready to come together for child-rearing, but their partnership lasts only until the babies are on their own. It’s a fine system for producing little woodpeckers, but seems so unromantic, reminding me of Robert Frost’s line:

It couldn’t be called ungentle,
But how thoroughly departmental.