For the Birds Radio Program: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Oct. 15, 1989 (estimated date)

Laura talks about a cool rarity.

Audio missing


The first winter after I moved to Duluth from Madison, Wisconsin, a Red-bellied Woodpecker turned up at my feeder for about two minutes–just long enough to stir up a powerful homesickness. Then it disappeared, never to return. The Northland’s a little north of this bird’s normal range–it’s a mast-eater that is most characteristic of the oak-hickory forests south of here. But fortunately for us, Red-bellieds do occasionally wander north for a while. This fall, at least three have turned up near Duluth–one at a feeder in Duluth’s Morgan Park, one by Eagle Lake, and one in Port Wing, Wisconsin.

The Red-belly is a splendid bird. Its back is delicately striped black and white. Its large black eyes are set off by its soft gray face and underparts. The nape of the neck and the feathers protecting the nostrils are brilliant scarlet–males also have a scarlet crown, but on the females, the crown is gray, matching the face. If you see a Red-belly at exactly the right angle, you might be able to make out some pink feathers on the underside, but because the birds usually cling to trees in normal woodpecker fashion, those red bellies are hard to see. When I first took up birding, I decided never to count a bird until I saw every conceivable field mark. Fortunately , the first Red-bellied Woodpecker I ever saw seemed to appreciate my high standards, and she swing around a thin horizontal branch in a most courteous and cooperative manner, showing off her red tummy feathers to perfection. Maybe that’s why I like this bird so much.

Where Red-bellies are abundant, especially as they move about in family groups during summer, it’s hard to imagine that they prefer leading a solitary life. Males and females maintain separate territories throughout most of the year, although several territories can sometimes intersect at a good feeding station. Mates hold adjacent territories during winter, but they virtually never cross the line even for a friendly chat. They seem to have emerged from a 1960s TV sitcom, maintaining their chaste separate beds so carefully that you can’t help but wonder where those babies come from.

This time of year, Red-bellies are always solitary. The female in Port Wing comes to every one of my in-laws’ feeders for sunflower seed, suet, apples, and corn. She sometimes drops down to the driveway–perhaps to pick up grit. She especially pleases the President of the Port Wing Blue Jay Haters because she chases the jays out of the feeder.

Unlike most woodpeckers, which eat mostly insects, Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat three times more vegetable than animal matter, especially acorns. They’re fond of fruits, including poison ivy berries and oranges. To survive winter, a Red-belly stores a huge amount of food in deep holes it excavates. Its extraordinarily long, fleshy and muscular tongue, which Alexander Skutch calls “a sort of lingual proboscis” can push the food in deeper than chickadees, titmice, or even Blue Jays can reach. It spends a lot of time minding the store, apparently remembering exactly where each morsel is hidden. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have between thirty six and thirty seven hundred feathers to insulate them and they spend their nights in snug tree cavities, so long as they have enough fuel to stoke up their metabolic furnace they do just fine in winter, even up here in the Northland.

If you watch your feeders long enough, a Red-bellied Woodpecker will eventually visit you. It’s nicest when they stay a while, but whether the visit is for two months, two weeks, two days, or two minutes doesn’t really matter. The moment you spot one of these splendid birds lighting your feeder, you will have a warm permanent memory to store against those bleak rainy days when your feeders are bare.