For the Birds Radio Program: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Original Air Date: May 20, 2002

An unexpected treat showed up in Laura’s yard for a week this month.

Audio missing


On December 20, 1981, the day after Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, a Red-bellied Woodpecker turned up at my feeder. I happened to be talking on the phone to Kim Eckert at the time. I must have gasped or said holy moly or something and told him what I was looking at, and next thing I knew the phone was dead. At the time, Kim still needed a Red-bellied Woodpecker for his St. Louis County list, and within five minutes he was at the door. But the Red-bellied Woodpecker was gone with the wind, never to be seen in my yard again.

Never, that is, until May 9, 2002, when a female Red-bellied Woodpecker moved in for a time. Every morning she showed up in my yard around 8 am, and if I checked my trees carefully, I could find her most any time for a week. She arrived each morning around the time my local pair of Blue Jays were feeding-they breakfasted on the sunflower seeds that I scatter on the ground under my big spruce trees. The first few days, the Red­ bellied Woodpecker charged the jays. After she was sure that they knew who was boss, she and the jays often sat near one another while they fed. After the red-belly ate her fill, she carried seeds off to wedge them into the bark of some of my trees. The way she stored food, I thought she going to stay a while, but after a week she moved on.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are wonderfully handsome. Their backs have fine black-and­ white striping from side to side, and their soft brown cheeks and throat show off their beady black eyes. My bird was a female, so she had a brilliant red head from the top of the crown down to the nape of her neck. Males have red on the forehead as well.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is primarily a bird of temperate hardwood forests. I used to see them just about every day when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and spot them regularly when I’m birding in Chicago. The species is non-migratory, but some individuals do wander quite a bit. They may be expanding their range northward in the way that cardinals are, or perhaps some individuals simply randomly wander north occasionally just to make us hopeful that they will eventually stay for good. My mother­ in-law, in Port Wing, Wisconsin, had one in her yard for a whole winter once or twice. And in 1999 my team found one on our St. Louis County Big Day, at a feeder somewhere around Meadowlands.

Although red-bellieds do take some suet at feeding stations, they’re more likely to feed on sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and even fruits. They’re also fond of acorns. It doesn’t make sense to set out anything specifically to attract them here in the northland­ getting one in our yard is simply a matter of luck. Fortunately, the kinds of seeds that are most attractive for Red-bellied Woodpeckers are the best feeder offerings for more common birds, such as grosbeaks, finches, chickadees, and jays.

I knew my redbelly would eventually move on. I wish she’d have stayed longer than a week, but I enjoyed her while I she was here. And I sure hope that it isn’t another 20 years before the next one shows up.